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Giving a Greek-American Tradition a Second Chance

By on June 20, 2013

For decades organizations representing various areas of Greece in New York flourished and being a member or such a group was the norm. However, with fewer immigrants coming and most of the American born being of mixed marriages, the need for such entities had lost its momentum. Today most of them are in a dormant if not in an extinguishing phase.

In the few cases that younger people actually tried to get involved, they were systematically pushed away by the older members, even if on the surface appeared to encourage them. Petty politics and infighting based on personal differences and selfishness became the real tradition those groups sought to preserve and promote, making sure that normal people wouldn’t dare approach, forget about staying. This might sound cynical, but I can speak from experience having being a member and having served on the board of one such group, the Lefkadian Benevolent Society of Greater New York.

Established early in the 20th century, the organization’s aim was to help newcomers from the Greek island of Lefkada and assist in any way it could those who stayed behind. Also, through various events to bring compatriots together, to communicate, have fun, exchange information and create a virtual home away from home. And it did it for a long time, despite the not few setbacks.

However, for the last five years the Society stopped been active and none seemed to care, until a group of young people, most of them daughters and sons of older members, decided that yes, there is a need for such an organization. Georgia Sideris, an American born Lefkadian, Fordham graduate and special education teacher, raised the idea with her friends and before long the organization stood again on its feet attracting older and new members from all over the tri-state area. About a month ago they held an election and she became president with her friends as the new board. In an interview with NEO magazine she appears enthusiastic about the prospects and she claims that a trend is in the offing with similar initiatives taking place in other groups as well.

Georgia Sideris (2nd from right) with member of the Board Kostas Kavvadias, Eleni Palmos and Ioanna Zoitas (right)

Georgia Sideris (2nd from right) with member of the Board Kostas Kavvadias, Eleni Palmos and Ioanna Zoitas (right)

You were born and raised in New York and you are part of the American main stream. What’s the need to resuscitate a defunct, local, ethnic organization that represents a past that doesn’t seem to have a future?

Actually, our organization was not defunct. The Lefkadian Benevolent Society (LBS) is a current not-for-profit organization, however it was dormant. I truly believe our organization will have a successful renewal. Everyone involved, the older generation as well as the young adults, have shown great interest in supporting us.

Nowadays, young people can meet other young people everywhere and since many are from mixed marriages, what makes you to believe that an organization representing a particular area of Greece can still be relevant?

An organization is as relevant as its members and their ideas. I am proud to say that the current board and the members of our society are educated, hard working Greek Americans with an open minded approach to life.

Your grand father, father and many other members of your family were involved in it. Did that have anything to do with your decision to restart it and to what extent?

My grandfather has a great deal to do with my decision to revitalize the LBS, he was very proud of our history and passionate about the organization; he endeavored to keep our Lefkadian traditions alive here in NY. Moreover, he was directly involved in the creation of an afternoon Greek dance school for children of the LBS, as well as an organizer of the annual Greek parade and our picnics and dances. Mostly, I was nostalgic for the past; I miss the parties and picnics in addition to spending time with family and friends. The “syllogo”, as we call it in Greek, is a great way to stay in touch and create bonds with each other. I have always thought of myself as a Lefkadian -Greek American, never just Greek or American; from my early childhood and throughout my adulthood, my life always seemed to encompass a dual existence. As a young girl I visited my grandparents in Lefkada every summer. In fact, I am 100% Lefkadian as my parents are both from different areas of the island. Visiting my homeland each year has definitely shaped my character, it allowed me to appreciate where my parents were born and raised; I learned the local dialect which is quite distinct and became familiar with my extended family and our traditions.

How did you come up with the idea to undertake this initiative? Were you alone or it was a group decision?

The fact that the syllogo was abandoned always bothered me, as I said I truly miss the good times and caring peopIe that I had grown to love throughout my childhood. In addition, the economic situation in Greece is currently at its worst, it really saddens me to see my homeland on its knees. But I didn’t know how to help on my own. I decided that it was time for the LBS to get back together and help those that cannot help themselves. I mentioned my ideas to a few friends from Lefkada, and the initial reaction from everyone was “do it!” In June of 2012 I started a facebook page for LBS and began gathering information necessary to start the process.

When you started approaching people your age or even younger, what was their reaction?

The initial reaction was very positive, my excitement over the idea of bringing back the LBS slowly but surely became infectious, apparently I was not the only one that often thought about childhood memories that included the annual LBS picnic and dances. Moreover, my compatriots are equally if not more so excited to help the people of Lefkada.

Georgia Sideris with cousin Eleni Skaris

Georgia Sideris with cousin Eleni Skaris

How did the older members react to the idea?

The older members are proud of the new generation of Lefkadians, in fact they have been extremely helpful in the renewal of the LBS. Indeed, they have encouraged us every step of the way and offered to help us in every way possible.

As elected president now, what are your priorities? Give us some fresh ideas that you and your friends have and in your opinion they will make this project attractive and viable.

As president my first order of business has been to let everyone know that the LBS is back and fully functioning. The members of the board and I have been working to re-sign up old members as well as to bring new members into the organization. We have reviewed the old constitution and by-laws and we are working on making them current. We are focused on modernizing the LBS and we plan to utilize it as a platform for charitable and or educational contributions to society. Currently, according to the old by-laws, membership is open only to Lefkadians and their spouses. However, the board plans to change this antiquated notion. We plan to welcome all friends of Lefkada.

When the organization started early in the 20th century, its main goal was to help people in need, here and in the old country. Greece once more is in trouble. Have you contemplated of ways to help?

The main reason we re-started the organization was to help those in need. The LBS is a not for profit organization with a focus on maintaining our traditions and culture. However, we need to maintain our people as well. The board has been discussing various ideas, such as donating time and resources to the retirement home in Lefkada as our first official charitable act. Oftentimes the elderly are forgotten and pushed to the wayside. Society cannot function without the knowledge passed down to us by our elders. They should be honored and revered rather than forgotten. In addition we will research possible orphanages that we could possibly assist, because our children are the future. I often say history repeats itself, we have to learn from it in order to sustain our future.

We are currently working on a solid proposal for the organization to approve.

About Demetrios Rhompotis

Demetrios Rhompotis is Publishing Committee Chairman at NEO Magazine. E-mail: dondemetrio@neomagazine.com. Phone: (718) 554-0308