Volunteering on the Island of Crete
Getting to Know My Father’s Homeland
By Lynn Lotkowictz
When he was seven years old, my father and his family left Crete in 1917, traveling from Greece on the ship Patras for the 10- to 12-week Atlantic crossing to New York’s Ellis Island. Like immigrants from across Europe, his family was poor and seeking a better life in the U.S.
Settled in New Jersey, he grew up realizing the American dream of four children, an amazing wife and great success in business operating a diner and lounge. My father never forgot his Crete homeland and now that I have had the opportunity to experience this precious Mediterranean island myself, neither will I.
I had traveled to Crete several times as a tourist, but it was in 2014 that I started seriously thinking about retirement and about making a more authentic connection with Crete. I didn’t want to spend my time relaxing on a beach or sightseeing around Athens. I discovered that Minnesota-based, Global Volunteers, offered a two-week volunteer service vacation helping teens and pre-teens learn conversational English in Crete. Setting out in early October, it was the perfect excuse to deepen my family roots on Greece’s largest island.
Global Volunteer country leader “Sam” (short for Samantha) met me at Crete’s Heraklion International Airport and we drove to the modest hotel where all volunteers stay. I had dinner with Sam and the two other volunteers participating in the program, a retired couple from California on their eighth Global Volunteers trip. The summer programs have 20 or more volunteers, but I deliberately choose October for a more personal, authentic experience.
Informally gathered by the hotel pool, we set goals for the two weeks and, after lunch, went on a drive to some local villages. For me it was an opportunity to practice my limited Greek on the locals and witness a Greek Orthodox wedding procession along with what looked liked the entire village.
For the next two weeks, we spent our evenings, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., at Morfosi School (which means “Knowledge” in Greek), a private school five miles from our hotel in the neighboring town of Gazi. The school’s director, Matina, is a Greek-American New Yorker who visited Crete 20 years ago, fell in love, married a local business man and never returned to the U.S.
The Morfosi students focus on learning English so they can pass the required proficiency exam necessary to enter university in Greece. Many jobs, especially those that are tourism-related, also require English. To prepare for the first class, our small group chatted about how to make the best possible impression and learn as much as possible about the students and their interests. After a wonderful seafood dinner, we made our way to the school to meet our students.
Each of the three classes had a half-dozen students, ages nine to 14. We introduced ourselves and then they used their limited English to ask us the type of questions that teens around the world ask Americans. “How much are iPhones in the U.S.?” “What kind of music do you like?” “Are New Yorkers and Americans friendly?” The students were genuine, inquisitive and enthusiastic. It was a successful first encounter.
Having earlier prepared for my evening lesson, one day I craved a Starbucks coffee so decided to venture to the bigger city, Heraklion. After a 20-minute bus ride, 20-minute walk and a few wrong turns, I spotted the familiar green umbrella. On the way, I passed so many quaint authentic Greek coffee houses with wonderful aromas of baked local specialties that I changed plans. Recalling my quest for an authentic connection, I skipped Starbucks for a local café, sat outside and enjoyed a Greek coffee, a helping of spanakopita and plenty of people watching.
For the first real evening of teaching, I was working with two boys and one girl, all aged 14. We practiced vocabulary and I asked them to complete sentences. My student, John, had a few struggles but was genuinely interested in learning English. At the end of class, he asked me if he could bring in his mandolin one night to show me how well he played. I was thrilled he wanted to share his talent with me.
I decided to experiment with my iPad mini and the “Endless Alphabet” app. The students were excited to try something new and, of course, like all young people, got the “swipe” down instantly. Bright eyed and clearly having fun, the students asked, “Will you be here next week?”
As well, I sometimes used my technology as a fun focus when visiting a women’s community group during my Crete trip, when we weren’t packing up donated clothing from local people, intended for refugees newly landed on Greek shores.
One morning Matina invited me to Heraklion for a tour of the best places for outstanding Greek cuisine, snacks and sweets. The hospitality and warmth from everyone I encountered was wonderful and heartwarming. They were so appreciative of our time and wanted to be sure we also enjoyed ourselves. Our hotel gave us complete use of the lobby, two computers and WiFi. Breakfast, a hot lunch and traditional Greek dinners were all included. We were treated like family.
By week two the students were more open and comfortable working with us. We were told that it’s really helpful for them to hear English from native speakers, something they rarely get to do. This particular area of Greece gets many tourists from all over Europe and Russia but few Americans or British, so listening and having conversations is a great learning experience.
The second week of teaching, community activities and sightseeing flew by and soon it was time to say goodbye. I had lived side by side with the locals and gained an understanding of a truly ancient culture. As does the rest of Greece, the people of Crete have modern-day economic difficulties, yet they are warm, welcoming and happy to share personal stories with a positive attitude.
So many times during that trip I thought of my father. Now that I have returned to Crete with Global Volunteers three times in four years, I too love Crete and have made good friends there among both the students and adults. Many people believe you can’t be a positive influence or make a difference with short term volunteering. My experiences tell me otherwise.
Follow Up FactsFounded in 1984, Global Volunteers, globalvolunteers.org, offers one, two and three week service vacations available in 17 countries. Costs vary depending on the length of the program and location. For US taxpayers, the program fees, airfare, visa and related travel expenses are tax deductible for the full-day service projects and Global Volunteers provides a tax statement for income tax purposes.
The author’s two-week Global Volunteers service program in Crete, included hotel accommodations, all meals, the teaching orientation and transportation to and from the school each weekday. Children under 18 years must travel with a parent or adult legal guardian or grandparent.
“The Crete summer teams often include children volunteering with their families,” explains Michele Gran, cofounder of Global Volunteers. “We also have a lot of grandparents who bring grandchildren as a graduation present. All minor children who take part on our service programs work alongside their parents on our Conversational English program. They also join the local kids at recess for “outside” games such as soccer and basketball while parent volunteers supervise.”
From our publication’s Travel Article Library, you will also enjoy a tasty story about cuisine vacationing in Crete, while learning about the island’s food culture from a Greek American chef and documentary film maker who lives there.
Living in Florida with husband Bill, Lynn Lotkowictz recently retired from Florida Trend Magazine. While travel has long been a passion, her more recent introduction to volunteer travel has added a rewarding focus to exploring the world which she has shared in print and web articles. Lynn hopes to volunteer with Global Volunteers twice in the next year, once more in Greece and either in Poland or Portugal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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