By David Bjorkgren
Philanthropist Eleni Bousis is constantly on the move. Taking a quick lunch break between meetings May 30, she stops to chat a bit with the Hellenic News about receiving the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
She deflects the conversation away from herself. Instead, she talks about the true heroes that made our country great—the immigrants.
Bousis, a Greek American, was part of an awards ceremony May 13 at Ellis Island, one of 94 individuals who received the Ellis Medal. Bousis was recognized for her good deeds on behalf of children/orphans, women who are abused or in need, senior citizens, cancer patients and those who are suffering around the world.
“It was a very humbling experience and a very emotional experience,” Bousis said of the ceremony.
The National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations – NECO, sponsors the annual award and presents it each year on Ellis Island to American citizens who have “distinguished themselves within their own ethnic groups while exemplifying the values of the American way of life.”
“We should never forget our heroes that crossed the Atlantic and overcame so many barriers. I know my parents came here with two suitcases, $25, and four little babies, with no education, no anything and their main focus was to educate their children,” Bousis said.
The Ellis Island Medals of Honor “recognize individuals who have made it their mission to share with those less fortunate their wealth of knowledge, indomitable courage, boundless compassion, unique talents and selfless generosity; all while maintaining the traditions of their ethnic heritage as they uphold the ideals and spirit of America, ” states a release on the NECO website.
Bousis said she was likely chosen because of the different organizations she has created around the world and the impact those organizations have on people in need.
“There’s just so much passion that I have in life and I’ve heard the voice of those who are vulnerable and I’m very blessed that my husband can share in my passion, and my children have become a part of it, too,” she said. Bousis and her husband, Dimitri, hail from Chicago. They have four children: Michael, Evangelo, George and Victoria.
The couple achieved success with the family business, a grocery store on Chicago’s south side, Cermak Fresh Market, and went on to open a chain of supermarkets. Yet they may be best known for the philanthropic causes they support.
Eleni Bousis is board chairman of the Greek American Rehabilitation and Care Centre in Wheeling, Illinois; one of the founders of the Hippocratic Cancer Research Foundation, and she sits on numerous boards, including Leadership 100, Little City Foundation and FRONTIDA. Bousis has been recognized numerous times for her charitable efforts and for supporting Hellenism in America and in Greece.
Bousis doesn’t like receiving accolades but she accepts the awards to give light to her causes “just to make aware that there are all these wonderful causes for all of us to embrace and…just to do great things for humanity. All of us, if we become responsible to save one life, we’ll really be a care-free world, ending suffering.”
The significance of the medal ceremony was not lost on Bousis, who said she was humbled being in the company of the other recipients and by where the ceremony took place. Immigrants, she said, have inspired so many of the organizations and foundations that make up our nation.
“I think it shows the bigger picture that everyone needs this country to fulfill their dream of achieving an education, and when you met all those wonderful people, you read their resumes and you see how they are impacting this new world that they came to,” she said.
Eleni and Dimitri (Jimmy) Bousis married young, emigrating from Greece to Chicago.
“It was a difficult challenge. We were two youngsters,” she said.
She recalled a difficult pregnancy with her oldest son. She was still going to school and they had no insurance for the hospital when it came time for her to deliver.
“They put us on a program for those that were getting an education and did not yet have insurance. When I took him out of the hospital I asked my husband what the bill was and he said with this program all the donations to this hospital paid for your son,” she recalled. “That’s the moment my husband and I committed ourselves that if we are ever blessed by God with more than what we need than we will give back because somebody gave to us.”
Bousis looks to her parents, Angelo and Bessie Palivos, and to her grandmother as mentors. They were uneducated, humble people that came to America with a goal of educating their children, to give them opportunities to succeed, engendering a pride in their Greek heritage.
“My parents were loving and giving people. They were people that taught us you have to love God and you have to love humanity,” she said. There were visits to church and to the poor and needy with her grandmother. It is where she learned to give without expecting anything in return.
“I think that if you don’t forget where you came from and where our parents and grandparents came from than you know you are filling your purpose in this world,” she said.