United We Stand: Pancretan Youth Association Winter 2017 Conference
By Chris Salboudis
The word ‘community’ is used to describe several contemporary sociological settings and situations. As a teacher and mentor of twenty years it has always been my goal to reinforce our philosophies and cultural traditions among today’s youth, and I’m always very proud to see Greek youth motivated to gather on their own to uphold these values and to keep them alive as they grow together from one generation to the next. This is most certainly the case with the Pancretan Youth Association (PYA), which just kicked off the new year by hosting its 82nd annual conference in New York (District II) at Omonia and Minos Organizations from January 5th to the 8th. Over 200 young people (ranging from ages 15 to 30) from Canada, Chicago, California, Detroit, Ohio, Utah, Washington and other parts of the US were in attendance. The emphasis of these activities and discussions? Unity in the celebration of their Greek and Cretan roots.
Founded in 1948 with the help of Mary Vasilakis and other youth whose families were members of the Pancretan Association of America, (PAA), the PYA is the oldest national Greek American youth association. Tens of thousands of youth and young adults have transitioned into adulthood through the PYA, passing along the sacred traditions and heritage of their ancestral homeland through their annual national and local events. The organization is currently comprised of twenty chapters throughout the United States and Canada and is governed by a national PYA Board of Directors. The group’s purpose is to promote and develop social and cultural relationships and mutuality among members of the Cretan Diaspora, promoting education through scholarships, raising philanthropic awareness through initiatives designed to aid institutions in the United States, Canada, on the island of Crete, and to help promote further community involvement in programs and discussions directed by the Pancretan Association of America (PAA).
Over 200 youth from across the US and Canada gathered along with PYA Alum to discuss common interests and goals for 2017. Activities included a welcome networking reception at Republic Pizza Bar (Astoria NY), several cultural tours and discussions, a formal Board meeting and a dinner dance in each of the two organizations, Omonia and Minos (both based in Astoria NY), featuring live music by Stratakia and concluding with delightful dance performances by our local youth at a dinner gala event hosted by Omonia.
Several senior members of the larger PAA lent their support as needed over the cold, snowy weekend by shuttling the youth safely from their hotel to the various conference venues, assisting with event preparations and hosting the Saturday morning brunch and traditional Vasilopita cutting at the conclusion of the Board Meeting at Minos Cretan Syllogo. Local business owner, Mike Psilakis of MP Taverna, also pitched in by catering the evening Cretan feast at Minos.
PYA President, Christos Markakis, presented a plaque to the local chapter President, Stella Nikole Fragioudakis, for her work in collaborating with the local PYA and PAA chapter members as well as the national groups to coordinate this 4-day event. Christos says, “I am amazed every time I attend and participate in conferences held by PYA chapters. The amount of work the youth goes through to host a conference is just mesmerizing and astounding knowing their payment is that they get to see their friends and practice their culture amongst their fellow peers. It shows the friendliness we Cretans and Greeks have no matter what part of the world we will be in. Crete will always live in our hearts and we will always want to share that with the world.”
PAA President, Takis Psarakis, and District 2 Governor, Maria Stratoudakis, offered words of encouragement, support and gratitude to the youth at the conclusion of the bi-annual Board Meeting for being the backbone of the Cretan Diaspora, emphasizing that it is the organized collaboration of the youth that brings the values of the Cretan community forward to be absorbed and incorporated into the daily lives of future generations.
“The conferences for the youth that happen twice a year are very important.” Takis Psarakis explains in an exclusive interview. “They build the unity that is the backbone not only of the PYA but of the PAA also. They are here when they are younger, but when they are older, in their 30s and 40s, and they get married and have their families, the remember the values they learned here and now about our culture, they pass these on to their families, and they join us at the next level, the PAA. If we didn’t have this unity, this structure, the youth would learn only what they see for one day and not the values of the families who they have the opportunity to grow up with as members of the PYA. There’s a great importance to having that continuity in their lives. Look at me now, today I’m President, but once I was a youth and helped by those values. Today I work to help the youth and the PYA and PAA members to uphold and promote these values because they’re important… family, culture, religion, all of it. Also, as a parent, the PYA brings the community together so they are exposed to the traditional values and grow together at a young age, going to events and dances together. When they all go out together, they do so with the values of our culture. These are our youth. There’s a unity there that makes these experiences very important. Their success is our success, not the other way around.” Mr. Psarakis was raised in Crete and studied for a time in Italy, coming to the US to earn his Masters Degree in New Jersey and raising his family here. His children are currently active PYA Members and young professionals in the Greek American community.
In the follow-up interview with Mary Vasilakis, one of organizers behind the original PYA activities of 1948, we learn that two of the original PYA members, Manoli Pavlakis and Kosta Stamatakis, went on to become dedicated PAA Presidents. The photo from the 1948 PYA gathering, Mary is seated in the front row along with Pavlakis and Stamatakis.
In one of the more academic discussions of the weekend PYA Vice President Nikos Markakis, scholar and the Co-Founder of the Half Second Dance Collective in Toronto, and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy Perry Rizopoulos, St. John’s University, discussed the value and importance of our basic greetings, of the process of dancing or even just sitting together and sharing a meal. The concept of unity is essentially and inseparably inherent to who we are as Greeks and how we identify with others.
PYA members and Alum share why they find the organization such an essential part of their upbringing and current lifestyles:
Dean Marangoudakis, an active NYC-based PYA member since the age of 15, provides a wonderful summary of his experience from a new member through to his position as a community leader and PYA Advisor: “I was 15 years old when I first joined the dance group of ‘Omonoia’. At the time, I had very little connections to Crete, and didn’t know many people from the island. When I first joined the group I did it more as a favor to others rather than for myself. Little did I know what was waiting for me; a whole other world! Throughout the years of being part of a dedicated dance group and a local Cretan chapter in New York, ‘Labrys’, I had the opportunity to visit different parts of the US, sharing experiences and memories with people who had the common interest and love for Crete. Through this we learned together everything that being Cretan means. With the help of the PAA, the PYA, and our local chapters, I had the opportunity to learn about our rich culture, traditions, and history.
“The Pancretan Association of America and its youth organization, the Pancretan Youth of America has been working tirelessly for the last 100 years in setting up a platform in which younger generations (2nd, 3rd, 4th generation Greek/Cretan-Americans) have the opportunity to learn about our history, dating back to the Minoan times. Whether it was being taught the origins of all of the dances; both “known” dances and those that are considered “lost”, growing a love and appreciation for Cretan music and poetry, to learning about influential Cretan figures that played major roles in wars against the Ottoman Empire and the resistance of the Nazis in World War 2. Not a day goes by where I don’t learn something new about the beautiful island of Crete and its richness and sophistication. For this I am more than proud to say that I am Cretan, regardless of the fact that I was born in the US. Without the efforts of the PAA and PYA, I would not have had any of this.
“For those new and upcoming members who may be hesitant to join or don’t yet understand the importance of joining your local chapter and getting involved, I advise you to think again, for I was once 15 and knew nothing or anybody, but now I consider some of these ‘strangers’, family. It’s a great opportunity to educate yourself on matters you never imagined learning, and loving some things you may have never known existed. ‘Ποτέ σου να μη λησμονείς, τους τόπους που σ’ όριζαν. Δεν έχει αξία το δέντρι, άμα δεν έχει ρίζα.’”
Similar responses were offered in a separate conversation with one of the youngest new NYC members (age 15) attending her first PYA conference: “It’s good to come together this way. If we are a little different in the daily world — like at school and stuff — it doesn’t seem to matter as much because you can always come back to the syllogo and know your friends are there. It’s good to have my syllogo friends from dance, and now to hear more what the older PYA youth is doing to keep the group together for us and moving forward. I like learning the traditions but also the issues and discussions that come up. I’m glad the next one is in New Jersey so I can attend for sure.” Hearing such thoughts from a younger member just reinforces the reality that beyond the feast and good cheer, PYA brings with it a deeper strength and comradery that essentially stems from each social gathering and pervades through to the personal and professional lives of each member, creating new social and professional opportunities that then take root in the more mainstream society. Mentoring — both formal and informal — is one of many fundamental concepts among PYA Members and Alum and have grown organically from the bi-annual PYA and PAA conferences. For more information about the remarkable youth incentives, please visit http://www.pancretan.org. You can also read about the outstanding achievements and leadership efforts of several PYA youth and young professionals on www.philo4thought.org.
And so, despite the snow and travel delays, the PYA youth warmed our hearts once again with an admirable display of commitment, spirit and unity, in true Cretan form. Bravo Paidea! We wish you an amazing year ahead and many more to come.
SPECIAL RECOGNITION: Many thanks to all those who contributed quotes and event details towards this article, especially PAA Archivist ERASMIA NOVOTNY and to MARY VASILAKIS (Daughters of Crete & PYA Coordinator of 1948) from Pittsburg, PA, who took the time to chat and share original photos and articles about the PYA’s origins.