As the government cuts back on spending, volunteers step up.
By Andy Dabilis for Southeast European Times in Athens -- 27/12/13
Physical education instructor Giorgos Fouskaris assists students with special needs at the Bridge of Life centre in Athens. [AFP]
For Athens kindergarten teacher Sophia Fokianou, 48, a new after-school volunteer program to help students with special needs, such as her 18-year-old daughter, has been a life saver.
"It was a big relief for me ... a dream come true," Fokianou told SETimes.
The Bridge of Life volunteer centre opened in the working-class Athens neighbourhood of Peristeri where Fokianou lives. It is a modest, two-story office on a busy street, operating from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Fokianou's daughter has Down's syndrome but now has plenty of company among two dozen others with special needs who have access to music teachers, a gym instructor, therapists, and breathing specialists who are helping to fill a growing gap left by government cutbacks.
"I wanted something creative for her to avoid just watching television. She really looks forward to coming here," Fokianou said.
Bridge of Life founder and president Dionysis Gouranios, a parent with a special needs child of his own, said he opened the centre because he could not wait for the government to help.
Gouranios gathered a group of parents that then raised donations and in-kind services, and are scouring foundations for donors.
"These children are under tremendous stress all the time. It was a dream of mine to create an organisation like this and put smiles on their faces because they are the real heroes of life," Gouranios told SETimes.
Gouranios said the number of children with special needs is growing and the programme had to turn away some with conditions too severe to receive proper care at the centre because it lacks a doctor.
"We cannot cover the needs on a volunteer basis. We need specialists," he said.
While the centre relies on financial contributions, parents are furnishing the space with used goods and accepting foods and other donated materials.
Occupational therapist Georgia Papiri volunteers as a specialist for autistic children ages 3-12.
"The biggest problem they have is communication. To be able to have a clinic even for an hour is a great help. It can help reduce poor behaviour," Papiri told SETimes.
Close to 300 schools in Greece offer programmes for students with special needs during school hours but lack specialists to staff them.
Experts estimate a shortage of at least 300 psychologists, 280 social workers, 190 occupational therapists, 230 speech therapists, 120 physical therapists and 140 school nurses.
Greece's 62 diagnosis and support centres, which vet students based on their disabilities to determine how much state support they will get, are also understaffed and many cannot operate.
That is where the Bridge of Life steps in.
Besides benefit cuts, parents of special needs students are waiting eight months or more to get refunds for money spent on special classes, doctors' visits and special equipment.
That has led to more parents taking their children out of the special needs schools, unable to afford the costs, and turning towards out-of-work professionals who are offering services at cut rates.
"I feel compassion for people in this position and wanted a centre where kids could have a place for activities and to help the parents," Vassilis Kallergis, a police officer who is vice president of the Bridge of Life, told SETimes.
On a typical night, special needs students go through physical education exercises designed for them, receive physical therapy, counselling, music and art lessons and socialise with each other.
Gouranios said he is worried about the future for special needs students unless more services and staff are restored by the government.
"Parents have to worry: How do I raise this child and what happens when I pass away?" he said.
What can the Greek government do to better assist children with special needs? Share your opinion in the comments space.