NEW YORK – The Hellenic Initiative (THI) is a global, nonprofit, secular institution mobilizing the Greek Diaspora and Philhellene community to support sustainable economic recovery and renewal for Greece and its people. THI programs address crisis relief through strong nonprofit organizations, led by heroic Greeks who are serving their country. They also build capacity in a new generation of heroes, the business leaders and entrepreneurs, with the skills and values to promote the long term growth of Hellas.
THI Executive Director Peter J. Poulos spoke to The National Herald about his work, Greek heritage, moving permanently to Athens, and how THI is attracting the younger generation in the Community with its New Leaders program.
When asked how his background and Greek heritage inform his life and work, Poulos said, “My parents would always say that if you don’t know where you came from you can’t know where you’re going. So from a very early age I knew about my Greek heritage. And even though we only spoke English at home and we weren’t the family that visited Greece every year, being Greek was tightly woven into the fabric of our lives. Our house was filled with books on Greece, watercolors, and icons from galleries in Athens and food from Mani and Sparti. Of course, church was a big part of our lives and still is.”
Poulos believes, “the most important part of what I gained from being Greek was a sense of belonging to a community that was well regarded and respected in the overall community. Because Greek-Americans had excelled both academically and in business, that became a source of pride for me. Being Greek also instilled in me a strong work ethic, respect for my elders, and a deep appreciation of the struggles of all immigrants.”
Of his Greek roots, Poulos told TNH, “It was my great-grandparents who left Greece at the turn of the last century and all of them come from Lakonia. My mother’s family is from two villages in the mountains, Arna, which is outside of Sparti, and Reheia, outside of Monemvasia. My father’s family is from the villages of Karvelas and Konnakia, south of Gytheion. Before it was shortened, the name was Poulymenakos.”
When asked what led to his moving permanently to Greece, Poulos explained, “In 1980, I attended Ionian Village with my brother and cousins and it changed my life. All of the places I had read and heard about suddenly came to life. We traveled all over Greece with the camp but it was Athens that made the biggest impression on me. To this day, I cannot explain the thrill I experienced climbing the slope of the Acropolis and witnessing the power of the Parthenon. And besides all of the ancient monuments, the modern city was intoxicating. I described it as having the energy of New York City, just better because it was filled with Greeks. So when I was in college I spent a junior semester in Athens studying international relations and Modern Greek history. It was then that I made the decision that at some point in my life I would permanently live in Athens.:
He returned to the United States in 1986, finished college, worked at Manatos & Manatos and on the Hill in Washington, DC.
“In 1989 I moved to San Francisco where I opened a fundraising business called Poulos Brothers. It was there that I become more involved in the Greek community, both in politics, volunteering with the then-Mayor Art Agnos, with my church, and with The SF Greek Film Festival for which I became the Founding Director. But the call of the homeland became too great and in 2007 I fulfilled my dream and moved to Greece with my dog Spyros.”
Poulos also told TNH about how he first became involved with THI. He said, “It was my friend George Stamas, THI Founder and Board President, who introduced me to The Hellenic Initiative and convinced me to start consulting with them on fundraising. I was immediately impressed with the mission, to engage Greeks in the Diaspora to help Greeks in Greece. Board members included personal friends like Dean Dakolias, Father Alexander Karloutsos, Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis, Drake Behrakis, Constantine Karides, Dennis Mehiel, and others who helped define the role of the organization for me.”
For THI, “With my fundraising background and knowledge of the Greek-American community, we started planning our first event in 2013 in New York City. That event broke all records for fundraising in the Greek Diaspora community and helped launch brand THI as a force in the Greek Diaspora,” he said.
When asked what he is looking forward to working on most this year with THI, Poulos told TNH, “I have two goals that I am looking forward to working on: 1. To grow the organization internationally and 2. To fund more NGOs and economic development projects in Greece. Mark Arey, my predecessor and good friend, worked tirelessly to establish THI as a trusted, responsible, and transparent organization. With the help of our extraordinary team and board of directors, we are building on that trust and connecting our donors and supporters with all of our good works in the homeland. To that end we are re-designing our website to make it more user friendly. We have launched a monthly international newsletter sharing the news of not only THI U.S. but THI Australia, Canada, and the UK. It is sent to over 10,000 THI supporters worldwide. We are also an Amazon Smile Partner which allows our supporters to shop on Amazon while benefitting THI. All new exciting ventures for THI. We promise to keep you apprised of our news.”
About increasing the number of young Diaspora Greeks involved with THI, Poulos said, “It is our job at THI to make the work we do in Greece for our fellow Greeks relevant to young people in the Diaspora. So five years ago, we established the THI New Leaders whose mission is to engage young (40 years and younger) Greek-Americans to fundraise, donate their time, resources, skills, and expertise in helping to build a better future for Hellas. The response and support has been overwhelming with New Leaders’ events around the country selling out and young Diaspora Greeks around the world writing every day to ask how they can help. Our Board President likes to call these events ‘Networking with a Purpose’ and they are exactly that. Our plans for this year also include establishing volunteer opportunities in Greece, launching a mentoring program connecting our New Leaders with Greeks in need of advice and expertise, and expanding our free Speaker’s Series.”
“More than anything we are interested in collaborating with like-minded organizations in the Diaspora and in Greece in helping our members create strong bonds with the homeland. As my parents did for me, we are now doing for our young members, letting them know that the place they came from is the most special place on the earth. It’s an honor and a pleasure to attend a THI New Leaders event and meet so many accomplished and engaging people as it makes one feel hopeful for the future.”