The Penelopean Daycare in Athens’ Nea Ionia neighborhood has taken care of some of the most disadvantaged children in the Greek capital for decades.
But now, due to the pandemic, its volunteer administrator says the daycare is facing hardship, since there are far fewer children in attendance.
The volunteer director, Veronica Tsalta, a member of the worldwide Greek organization The Daughters of Penelope, who graduated with several degrees in mathematics and worked for years in Greece’s Social Security administration, led a webinar discussion on the plight of the Penelopean daycare recently.
Taking care of infants means added difficulties
Because so many of the children’s parents lost their jobs due to the lockdowns, she explained to the webinar participants, which included other Daughters around the globe, most of the Daycare’s usual pupils are now at home.
However, at the same time, many more infants, rather than older children, are attending the daycare every day. And these, the most vulnerable children of all, need more caretakers who are experienced in taking care of them.
Due to the strict ratio, set by the Greek government, of having only ten infants to one caretaker, more helpers need to be hired right away.
Overall, the Daycare’s attendance has fallen from its usual 140 to 90. But the infants who are there every day now need a great deal of care, which of course all infants do at that stage — and the funding that the Penelopean receives from the EU in the form of ESTA grants has been slashed.
The Penelopean — serving Athens since 1958
The story of the Penelopean all began on April 4, 1958, when two Athenian women — who were also Daughters of Penelope — discovered that girls as young as 12 were being taken to a prison for adult women after experiencing minor brushes with the law.
Seeing this situation as intolerable, the women, Eleni Kanalokou and Eleni Trianta, launched a fundraising campaign that would enable them to build a suitable school for young women.
Members of the Karyiatides Chapter of the Daughters, the women then devoted their lives to the creation of the institution.
Raffling off items such as cars that were donated to them, the women were eventually able to buy a large plot of land and build a 16,000-square-foot school in the Nea Ionia district of the Greek capital.
Children receive love and support from staff
Ever since that time, the Penelopean has been open and serving the neediest and most vulnerable in the city of Athens. However, its mission changed in 1975 after the Greek government stated that such a school was no longer needed for this particular segment of the population.
At that time, the Penelopean was transformed into a Daycare; since then, it has taken care of babies as young as eight months all the way up to five years of age, offering them a safe, supportive and educational environment — all under the loving care of its staff.
With twenty employees now, and a maximum of 140 children, the Daycare serves a crying need in the Greek capital, offering free care to families that have little or no income. Its board members who are Daughters of Penelope are all volunteers.
Serving children up to five years in age, the school offers classes in art, music, gardening, science and even Theater, where the children can learn about this most Greek of all arts.
The children are provided with breakfast, a snack and lunch by kitchen staff, who make all their food from scratch. No frozen or prepared food is ever given to them.
All the children are instructed at the appropriate level for their ages, according to Tsalta, who stresses that the children are not simply “parked” there by their working parents — they are nourished and allowed to develop and flourish to their full potential.
As Tsalta notes, this rich learning environment allows needy families to give the same “luxury of an education that they mights get in a costly private daycare.”
Parents only need an official statement of their financial status and an official statement from a doctor that their child has been vaccinated with the standard inoculations for their age. A majority receive their childcare for free while approximately 10% of families pay 70-150 euros per month.
Fully 65% of the Penelopean’s funding comes from ESTA, the European welfare program, and other funding comes from Greece’s Social Services bureau.
Friends of the Penelopean lends vital support
But at the present time, the Center is experiencing shortfalls due to the need for infant carers, and fundraising is now in full swing. The group called the Friends of the Penelopean also gives their monies and in-kind donations every year, including sheets, toys, heating oil and so on, to cover 5% of the Center’s budget.
The annual budget for the Center is 300,000 euros and the cost per child is 2,500 euros — a cost that Tsalta says is many times lower than with other daycares.
With colorfully-decorated playrooms, schoolrooms, and bedrooms, as well as laundry, kitchen facilities and even a beautifully-appointed chapel, the Center is a bright oasis of love and support for these smallest and most vulnerable Athenians.
However, the 60-year-old building needs constant upkeep, and several important projects are on the docket, including a new playground, new bathrooms, a new heating system and a new emergency exit for the second floor.
Daycare responds to pandemic by giving food to needy families
When the pandemic hit this past year, the Daycare helped those families who were most in need by distributing all the food that was in its refrigerators. After the strict lockdown, however, as it has reopened its doors and is functioning once again, the daycare itself needs help.
Tsalta says that the Penelopean’s new fundraising campaign includes the raffling off of a painting by noted artist (and Daughters of Penelope sister) Marina Vamvakas, among other things.
The longtime volunteer board member states “It’s not just the satisfaction derived from helping needy families — we also give children the psychological and educational background needed for healthy living — away from violence, either domestic or social.”
She adds that “Every donation counts, and is welcome and appreciated. We thank the Daughters of Penelope and all those who help us not to lose our faith so that we can keep one doing the best for our children, as we have always done.”