By David Bjorkgren, Editor

Special to the Hellenic News of America

The best and brightest Greek Americans gathered with their families in Las Vegas Oct. 4-7 in a labor of love—to share their experience of Hellenism with the younger generation and inspire them to appreciate their Hellenic roots.

The National Hellenic Society spearheaded the effort at its annual Heritage Weekend and Classic at the Four Seasons Resort, where hundreds of Greek Americans turned out to enjoy the hospitality of Las Vegas, share information and participate in panel discussions.

“What we are all about is using song, laughter, ‘parea,’ love of family, good friends and good faith.  That’s why we’re all here together,” said NHS founder Dr. George Korkos, speaking at the Oct. 6 awards dinner.  

Drake Behrakis, chairman of the NHS, expressed his grateful thanks to all the members. “Any organization that exists, it only exists because of our membership. You are our greatest asset,” he said.

Greek entrepreneurs John Calamos and Dean Metropoulos were honored Oct. 6 with the George Marcus Excellence Award for their roles in passing on Hellenism to the next generation.

Calamos is the founder and chairman of Calamos Investments, a global asset manager.  He is a long-time supporter of Greek American organizations and chairman of the board of trustees at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.  In a video, he talked about the importance of documenting the contributions of Greek Americans. “I am very concerned that if we don’t, this generation will be lost forever more so I think it’s really important we try and do what we can to preserve that,” he said.

Dean Metropoulos is the founder of the private equity firm Metropoulos & Co., which has acquired and transformed more than 83 companies, including the 2013 acquisition of Hostess snack cakes.  Born in Greece, his family came to America when he was 10. He credits his parents for their sacrifice and for giving him the confidence and support to succeed. The Conference also included panel discussions on issues from Hellenism worldwide, to Greek tourism, dance and archeology, but no matter the topic, the focus remained on inspiring Greek youth.

The National Hellenic Society was created to preserve and promote for posterity the legacies of Greece, from the ancient Hellenic era to the present.  Through its Heritage program, young Greek Americans can immerse themselves in Greek culture by spending time in Greece and working with students there. More than 400 students have made the journey during the program’s 10-year run. It’s also eager to work with other Greek American organizations to foster Hellenism.

Dr.  Korkos spoke with the Hellenic News of America about the Heritage Weekend and the origins of the NHS.  The National Hellenic Society grew out of the 20-year tradition of the Telly Savalas Golf Tournament. After Savalas passed away in 1994, Korkos and his friend, George Marcus, decided to expand the tournament’s success beyond golf.  They came up with the NHS mission, added educational and outreach programs with the goal to perpetuate and protect Hellenism in America. He pointed to the 100 or more young adults at the October conference as a sign of their success and described the weekend as one of “the finest Greek-American event in the United States.”

“We have so much love in this room. People want to commiserate with each other. They want to dine with each other. They want to have a glass of wine brimming at the top, to have fun together. I’m thrilled that we have put this together and I hope and pray that the Lord gives me many years because I want to be part and parcel to this wonderful ethnic event.”

Korkos, who was at the conference with his grandchildren, said board members are looking at innovative ways to perpetuate Hellenism in America. It is a task they owe their parents, who struggled to give their children a better life in the U.S.  Now the hope is the children of today will embrace the values of Hellenism their parents brought with them to this country.

“Many of these non-Greek children from mixed families, they have all reinvented themselves. They are all Greek. They are dancing. They are singing. They are even taking Greek lessons. I’m not suggesting for a moment that’s very important but being Greek is and if you keep some of your traditions and customs, that’s all I want,” he said.  

He thanked the Hellenic News of America and the Kotrotsios family for their support.  “You are a wonderful ethnic group of people that work very hard,” he told Hellenic News publisher Aphrodite Kotrotsios.  “It’s very important that we keep our rapport with each other.”

Noel Giglio, NHS national co-chairman of the Heritage Greece Alumni Network, went to Greece with 15 other students through the Heritage program back in 2010, the first year it was offered.  It changed her life.

“It’s a cause I really care about, preserving our heritage, and trying to keep that momentum going forward,” she said.

Many other organizations have religion or other facets to them but NHS is able to bring a combination of talent to the table that brings many opportunities for the younger generation to explore Hellenism.

“I had never been to Greece before and it kind of made me wake up and see that this is where my people came from.  This is who I am and it kind of rang true for me.”

The friends she made on that trip have become family.  In fact, she met her husband through her NHS work. She also received mentoring from NHS Executive Director Art Dimopoulos while she was in law school.     

“That was awesome of him to try to keep me involved that way as a student, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.”

Austin Cooke is a Greek American who grew up in the Greek church but stopped in his teen years as extracurricular activities took over. He learned about the NHS Heritage Greek program and thought it looked interesting. He went in 2011, the second year of the program, spending two-and-a-half weeks in Athens.  It was an eye-opening experience. Experiencing the culture and history first-hand was invaluable, he said. “It was something that connected me with being Greek-American, more so than anything I’ve done with church or related organizations.”

At one point during the awards dinner, Greek Americans were interviewed in a video about the importance of their Greek background.  “Heritage is the cornerstone of my identity,” said one. “It’s a spirit that is in me passed down from generation to generation,” said another.

Those attending the Heritage Weekend would heartily agree.