“The first is the opportunity to serve others here through the World Special Olympics. Each day our communication skills improve and we make new friends with people whose language we neither speak nor understand. A smile and a welcoming hand are universal, and the athletes are incredibly loving and accepting of our shortcomings. The second opportunity was when we returned to the hotel last night; we had to travel to a different stop because the protest in front of the Parliament (which was our normal stop) had turned violent. Last night, after a late dinner, I stood on the curb in front of our hotel, not more than 30 feet from a shoulder-to-shoulder barricade of riot police in full armour of shields and gas masks, and talked to many of our group who had not retreated to their hotel rooms.
“We had a great teaching and learning experience about human behavior, economics, and finance.” Portico asked Bill to share more about the group’s experience in Greece. Here is his account.
It wasn’t what most people would consider an ordinary family vacation. But as I reflect on some of my family vacations over the years, there were a great many similarities: new adventures, exciting times, unexpected challenges—all the things that make for a great family vacation. My family on this trip comprised 31 people connected to the University of Indianapolis, including 20 incredible students from different backgrounds, of both genders, and with a variety of majors in their field of study. Dr. Jennifer VanSickle and Dr. Michael Diacin, both of the Kinesiology department, represented the faculty and provided incredible leadership, judgment, understanding, and patience—especially during some of the more difficult moments of our journey.
Dave Breen, director of Sports Management, Special Olympics Indiana, and his family accompanied our group and gave us great insight into the Special Olympics program. The remaining seven were alumni and friends of the University. The primary purpose of our Greek Odyssey was to serve as volunteers at the World Special Olympics Summer Games. Our group left Indianapolis on June 24, appropriately attired in University of Indianapolis T-shirts, which made us easily identifiable. After a two-hour delay on our stopover in Philadelphia, we flew to Athens, the incredible capital of Greece.
Upon our arrival, we discovered a few surprises. A labor strike in their public transportation system was creating some difficulty for the city and there had been 26 days of protests against the Greek government in famous Syntagma Square, a short half block from our hotel. Syntagma Square is a park-like gathering area between the Parliament Building and the edifice that houses Greece’s Department of Treasury and the secretary of finance. There were thousands of angry protestors in the town square and the area surrounding the Treasury building. The Square and the Parliament were heavily guarded by police and soldiers in full riot gear.
After checking into our hotel and settling in, we traveled away from the Square to one of the several buildings occupied by the University of Indianapolis-Athens and had an orientation and welcome from Dr. Peter Wilkins and the staff. We were introduced to the UIndy-Athens campus and given a briefing on the protests and unrest that were taking place in the city. We learned that in order to be safe we needed to travel in small groups and when possible, to wear the uniforms provided us by the Special Olympics organization, which would help differentiate us from the protesters and trouble-makers in the city.
Our first opportunity to participate as volunteers was to attend the opening ceremony of the World Special Olympics, held in the Panathenian Stadium, which was built to house the first modern Olympic games in 1896 and served the Olympics of 1906. More than 7,500 special athletes from 175 countries were introduced by nationality and marched into the stadium in appropriate attire displaying their colors, flag, and banner. We were entertained by Vanessa Williams and Stevie Wonder and greeted by a number of dignitaries. This spectacular program lasted over five hours.
The next morning we traveled by subway to a destination where we were to be met by a volunteers’ bus to take us to our venue. The bus didn’t show up for two hours, so we arrived a bit late. We were fortunate that all 31 of us got assigned to the sport of bowling at the same location, though we did work split shifts. This meant that we could travel together in and out of the city as a group, giving us safety in numbers. The bowling/recreation center was in Spada, a suburb of Athens about 20 miles out. The students were assigned to the “field of play,” which meant that they were down on the actual bowling lanes with the athletes. The rest of us performed a variety of duties, including acting as hosts for the athletes as they arrived from various locations.
We also served as elevator operators, cheerleaders, stagehands for medal presentations, and in various other roles. Probably the thing we enjoyed most was giving plenty of hugs and high fives to the special athletes. Considering that there were so many different languages being spoken and customs being observed, things ran remarkably well. A smile, a hug, a handshake, and simply being available to the athletes, their coaches, and their families was a great experience for us all. The athletes’ ages ranged from 14 to some as old as your writer. (I won’t tell you how old that is!)
On Tuesday, we found out as we left the bowling venue that the riots in Syntagma Square had turned violent as a result of a vote taken by the Parliament to raise taxes, cut the number of federal employees, and sharply curtail some of the benefits that the public employees had become accustomed to receiving. When we arrived back in the downtown area we discovered that the rioting had moved beyond the Square and the police were trying to force them back into a central area. The smell of tear gas permeated the air and made breathing difficult. The sound of flash bombs exploding, tear gas canisters being detonated, and automatic weapons being fired (with rubber bullets) rang out both Tuesday and Wednesday all throughout the night. The city proved to be remarkably resilient in restoring order and cleaning up the horrible mess that the riot left behind. By Thursday it appeared that, with the exception of a few holdouts in the Square, the city was back to normal.
On Saturday, we traveled by ferry to the island of Agina, where we stayed for four days to enjoy the culture, the incredible scenery afforded by the Greek islands, the excellent cuisine, and much-needed down time with each other. We were joined by UIndy-Athens Chancellor Vasilis Botopoulos and his wife as well as Vice Chancellor Peter Wilkins and his wife. On our final night in Greece, we experienced a going-away reception on the rooftop of one of the UIndy buildings in a garden-like atmosphere, with the backlit Acropolis right behind us. Enjoying beautiful scenery, sharing stories, taking pictures, and bonding, we were in fact, just one big happy family. The caring and blending that took place in Athens reminded me of what I have always believed about the University of Indianapolis. Whether in Indianapolis, Athens, or any of the other places around the world where we are called to serve, we are family. So, I guess it’s not totally out of line to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this incredible family vacation.
—Bill Kiesel ’63