“Working to Preserve Our Heritage”: A Historical Review of Greek-American Community Services (1983-2002, Chicago, Illinois)
by Elaine Thomopoulos and John Psiharis
From 1983 to 2002, Greek-American Community Services (GACS), which was located in Chicago, offered a wide range of social service, humanities, and arts programs. The organization helped thousands of seniors maintain their independence, initiated the committee that built the Greek-American Rehabilitation and Care Centre, strengthened pride in ethnic heritage through humanities and arts programs, and forged interethnic cooperation. This work documents the work of GACS and its multifaceted contributions to the social and cultural life of Chicago’s Greek Americans.
Greek-American Community Services (GACS) began on a cold snow-swept evening in December 1982, when a small group of leaders of the Greek American community met in the back room of the Elysion Restaurant in Chicago. John Psiharis and Elaine Thomopoulos, social service activists, convened this meeting because they felt that the Hellenic Foundation, a particularly effective organization offering social services to the Greek community of metropolitan Chicago, as well as Hollywood House, an apartment building that offered affordable housing for seniors, was missing one thing. The Hellenic Foundation had decided not to pursue the goal of opening a nursing home.
But many in the community believed that building a nursing home for the elderly was sorely needed. Dr. Theodosis Kioutas, a respected physician who attended this meeting, had seen first-hand the suffering of the Greek elderly at area nursing homes because of language and cultural barriers. He and the others at this and subsequent meetings were determined to pursue this project. They also wanted to present cultural and arts programs that would preserve Greek heritage. The new organization, Greek-American Community Services, was officially registered with the State of Illinois in 1983. The motto used on GACS stationery was “Working to Preserve our Heritage.”
Administration and Staffing of GACS
The administration of GACS was shared by Elaine Thomopoulos, who had the title of administrator, and John Psiharis, who had the title of executive director. Thomopoulos resigned her position in 1990, although she continued being active in the organization. Psiharis continued in the position of executive director until 2002. Both Thomopoulos and Psiharis had previous experience in social service. From 1975 to 1983, they worked at the Hellenic Foundation. Thomopoulos, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and was a licensed clinical psychologist, had established the social service program at the Hellenic Foundation and opened offices serving the Greek community on both the north and south sides of Chicago. Psiharis had been volunteering at the Hellenic Foundation since he was 12 years old. He worked in various capacities, including coordinating a health fair, helping produce the Hellenic Foundation newsletter, and tutoring students.
At the beginning, GACS was staffed primarily with a cadre of dedicated volunteers, including Psiharis and Thomopoulos and Ph.D. candidate Steve Frangos who lent his expertise in writing grants. Staff in the 1980s also included a few who worked part-time through a government-funded program. Memorable was Spiro Dimas, an elderly immigrant from Epirus, who offered excellent home help services, visiting the homes of eight seniors each week. In some cases, he would visit and chat with clients while checking on their well-being. In other instances, he would shop or assist in meal preparation. A number of his clients were older men who were either widowed or never married and for them he was their only visitor and link to the outside world.
Some of the workers were referred by the court system, including a Greek immigrant taxi driver who had been arrested because he tried to bribe a police officer. He provided transportation so that his elderly clients could go to doctors’ appointments. GACS was also fortunate to have a middle-aged intern, Shirley Bernstein, from Northeastern Illinois University who when she walked into a room filled it with joy. She counseled the elderly and linked them up to services, as well as organized an educational program on Alzheimer’s.
The Greek-American Nursing Home Committee
The Greek-American Nursing Home Committee was established as a committee of GACS, under the direction of Dr. Theodosis Kioutas, in the summer of 1983. By 1984, The Greek-American Nursing Home Committee (GANHC) had become a separate organization, with many of the GACS board members serving on both boards. It succeeded in opening the Greek-American Rehabilitation and Care Centre in 2001 in Wheeling, Illinois, and continues to serve the Greek American, as well as the general community. The Greek community generously donated funds toward this effort. Additional financing came from selling tax-exempt bonds that were backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Social Service Programs
(A) Community Aging Network, an Outreach Program for the Elderly
In 1982, Thomopoulos had left the Hellenic Foundation to take on the position of director of Community Advocacy Network (CAN), a program of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI). Psiharis, who was then a college student, joined Thomopoulos to volunteer at CAN.
When funding ran out for CAN in 1986, GACS, which had been established in 1983, absorbed it into its own organization. From its inception, the GACS board had decided that it would not limit its services to Greeks but take a broader role in the social services network in Chicago. GACS rented two classrooms at Parkview Lutheran Church at very low rent on the northwest side of Chicago and renamed the program Community Aging Network. GACS could handle the financial burden of CAN since the CAN program had been staffed primarily with volunteers. Elaine Thomopoulos and John Psiharis decided they would also volunteer their services. An added bonus for Thomopoulos was that as a volunteer, she could bring her toddler son Christopher, to work with her. The expenses of CAN were minimal in the early years and could be raised by donations and fund-raising events such as Bike-a-Thons or Flea Markets.
The Community Aging Network program included home help and chore services, telephone reassurance, help in filling out forms to obtain benefits, and educational programs. Its clients lived primarily on the northwest side. Few were Greek. For one or two years, GACS maintained the office serving African American elderly, which was located at a church on the southside of Chicago, until the sickness of Ollie Bridges, the woman who had been volunteering her services, forced its closure. Community Aging Network, according to the 1987 ad book of the First Annual Heritage Awards Dinner, was staffed by 50 volunteers and served 700 people.
(B) Programs for Senior Citizens at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago
By 1986, GACS had started conducting monthly programs in Greek for the Young at Heart senior citizens group, a program of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago. The Young at Heart was a group of about 80 seniors, most of them immigrants, who met twice a week at the church to enjoy companionship, coffee and desserts, and for the women to play bingo and for the men to play cards. For the most part, the GACS programs were in Greek. Internist Dr. Theodosis Kioutas was a frequent visitor who spoke on various health matters and provided updates to the seniors on the progress of the nursing home project. Other doctors who educated the seniors about their health included podiatrist Dr. George Dalianis, ophthalmologists Drs. John and Peter Panton, and psychiatrist Dr. Demetrios Trakas and pharmacist, Dr. George Akrivos. The Pantons also conducted glaucoma and cataract screenings, and Mary Ann Conrick of the Chicago Hearing Society conducted hearing screenings. Other speakers included Fran Mitilianos from the local Social Security office, Roxanne Xenakis from the Chicago Department on Aging Levy Senior Center, Jim Demos and Genia Saveas from the Chicago Department of Human Services, and Nestor “Lefty” Chiakonas, a Chicago Police Department Commander, who provided seniors with safety tips. Theo Theodoratos and Barbara Nicpan, Director of the Levy Senior Center, spoke on “City Services Available to Senior Citizens through the Chicago Department on Aging and Disability.” Helen Georges, an administrator with the Illinois Department of Public Aid, discussed “Public Aid Programs for the Aged, Blind and Disabled, Medical Assistance, and Food Stamps,” and Tom Chiampas, a community representative for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), came to help seniors obtain CTA senior citizens reduced fare cards. John Geocaris, the 40th Ward Democratic Committeeman and Alderman Patrick J. O’Connor each visited on occasion to discuss matters of concern with the seniors. The Hellenic Foundation had previously conducted educational programs at St. Demetrios, but they had been discontinued. However, Hellenic Foundation program staff, such as Angelike Mountanis, presented some of the programs that were coordinated by GACS. Each year Mountanis explained the State of Illinois Circuit Breaker program, which provided grants to senior citizens to reduce the impact of taxes and prescription medications and assisted eligible seniors to fill out forms.
Cultural programs that GACS presented for the Young at Heart group included:
A Korean senior citizens dance band who wowed the St. Demetrios elders with their drums and dancing.
A series of programs by puppeteer Dee Manzara, who performed Karaghiozis, Greek puppet theatre.
Poems in the Greek language by John Dalapas.
A screening of the movie, Goodnight Socrates about the Greektown Halsted Street neighborhood and its impending demise because of the construction of the Congress Highway and the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.
GACS also conducted English language classes at St. Demetrios. One of the elderly grandmothers said, “I want to tell my granddaughter, who does not speak Greek, ‘I love you’ in English.”
(C) Friendly Visiting Program to the Greek Elderly in Nursing Homes and Establishment of the Northwest Chicago Senior Care Center
By 1986, GACS had also reached out to the Greek elderly by establishing a friendly visiting program for them in nursing homes. Many could not speak English. They felt isolated and lonely, especially those who did not have family members, since the staff at the nursing homes had difficulty communicating with them in the Greek language. In 1986, GACS had 16 volunteers who offered services to 30 elderly residents.
In order to avoid the elderly going into a nursing home, GACS decided, in 1990, to initiate a program that offered care for the elderly during the day, with their returning home to be cared for by relatives during the night. The day care center, named Northwest Chicago Senior Care Center, was initially housed in an abandoned school but relocated to 3940 N. Pulaski. The Pulaski Avenue location was rented from 1991 to 1993 and then purchased. The Senior Care participants enjoyed activities, a breakfast, snacks, and lunch. A nurse administered medication. Funding for the Senior Care Program for the elderly came mainly through the State of Illinois, supplemented by foundation grants and donations.
The importance of the Senior Care Center program to its recipients is illustrated in the following letter GACS received from the daughter of a man who had attended the center:
Sorting his things after he died was particularly painful but gave me a lot of reasons to smile too. Seeing all of the mementos from the day care, like his Bingo prizes, his projects and the different certificates (for Father’s Day, Best Athlete, Best in Jeopardy, and every conceivable certificate) that only showed how the day care made every effort to make him feel important. And important he definitely felt. He’d wave his certificate or show me his Bingo prize as soon as he got off the bus! He was like a little boy coming home from school who couldn’t wait to show his family his great accomplishments for the day. For that blessed joy, for him and for us, we are eternally grateful.
The Northwest Chicago Senior Care Center was one of the first of its kind in Chicago to use pets. Tornie the cat became an integral part of the place and was beloved by those at the Care Center. A participant’s last words on his death bed was “take care of Tornie.”
GACS informed the Greek community about the Day Care Center through marketing materials written in Greek, press releases to the Greek media, as well as by hosting coffee hours at Greek churches. However, few of the Greek elderly took advantage of this service. The location, on Pulaski, rather than the heavily Greek-populated Lincoln Square neighborhood, may be one reason they did not attend. Even when GACS established a bus service to the Lincoln Square area, few Greeks attended.
(D) Other Social Services Programs
The Benefits Eligibility Checklist (BEC) was an outreach program that helped senior citizens identify and apply for governmental benefits such as food stamps, energy assistance, property tax relief, SSI, Medicaid, CTA senior citizen bus cards, subsidized senior housing, the Circuit Breaker Program, and the Community Care Program, which provided services such as case management, day care, home-delivered meals, and housekeeping to enable seniors to stay in their own homes. The BEC was part of a national effort. The local program was funded in part by the Chicago Community Trust, and the Retirement Research Foundation, and was administered by the Chicago Department on Aging. John Rassogianis, who was hired as Cultural Arts Program Director, assumed the additional role of coordinating BEC outreach within the Greek community. The city paid for his BEC hours. He reached out to the Greek elderly by being available at the Young at Heart meetings at St. Demetrios and attending Greek festivals. Hundreds of seniors were reached.
GACS hired a part-time social worker, Ethel Kotsovos, to coordinate the Community Aging Network through funding from the United Way of Chicago, a non-profit organization that funds other charitable organizations. Kotsovos also became the Adult Day Care social worker and briefly administered a state funded chore-housekeeping contract GACS received. When Kotsovos transitioned to the role of office manager for the Greek-American Nursing Home Committee, she was succeeded by Presbytera Despina Massouras, who had recently completed her internship at GACS for her master’s degree in gerontology.
In 1992, shortly after moving into the Pulaski office, GACS began participation as an intake site for the federally-funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helped households with low incomes in paying for their heating expenses. GACS served about 1,600 households per year through this program.
During the holidays, the Pan-Laconian Federation supported GACS’s efforts to provide Thanksgiving and Christmas food boxes that were delivered by GACS volunteers to needy families.
Humanities and Arts Programs
Besides the social service programs for the elderly, GACS initiated a full range of humanities and arts programs for all ages. These programs were funded by the Illinois Arts Council, Chicago Community Development Block Grants Program, the Illinois Humanities Council, as well as donations from the Greek community. Greek-American Community Services had a dynamic board of capable professionals, as well as an active cultural arts advisory board member who helped organize these programs. Steve Frangos, a member of the cultural arts advisory board, helped GACS craft proposals and secure funding for many of the humanities and arts programs. Prominent scholars who offered their expertise included Professors Charles Moskos, Yorgos Kourvetaris, and Andrew Kopan. Rather than educating the community about Greece’s ancient past, GACS presented Greek American history and sociology and showcased Greek American artists. Other organizations, such as the Hellenic Museum and KRIKOS, had been offering programs about Greece, but few offered programs about Greek Americans. Thomopoulos and Psiharis, with the support of the GACS board, decided to educate the community about this neglected aspect of our history. An additional incentive was the availability of funding through the Illinois Humanities Council.
Working cooperatively with churches, organizations, and other ethnic organizations throughout Illinois
GACS believed that more could be accomplished by working cooperatively with Greek Orthodox churches and Greek organizations. The churches GACS partnered with included St. Demetrios, Holy Trinity, Annunciation, and Assumption Churches in Chicago; St. Sophia Church in Aurora; and the Three Hierarchs Church in Champaign. Organizations cosponsoring programs included KRIKOS (which consisted of Greek professionals), Orthodox Singles, Greek Women’s University Club, Hellenic Museum, Hellenic Professional Society of Illinois, and Greek student groups at DePaul and Loyola Universities.
GACS was unique in the variety of humanities and arts programs it offered and its cooperation, not only with Greek organizations, but with the wider community and other ethnic groups. The GACS board and staff felt that the Greek community could better understand their own community by comparing and contrasting it with other ethnic communities. Partnering with other ethnic groups also educated them about other ethnicities and established mutually beneficial relationships.
The ethnic groups GACS collaborated with included the Assyrian, Black, Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Jewish, Korean, Polish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese communities. Ethnic venues included two Ukrainian Orthodox churches, the Italian Cultural Center, the American Jewish Committee, and the Copernicus Foundation. They, like the Greek Orthodox churches, offered their venues free of charge.
GACS was fortunate to partner with various other institutions throughout Illinois, including Loyola and DePaul Universities in Chicago, Governor’s State University in University Park, Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Rockford College, the David Adler Cultural Center in Libertyville, as well as the Hull House Museum and the Swedish Covenant Hospital. Each of these hosted programs free of charge.
Fabric Arts Program
The Fabric Arts program began in 1986. It first met at Levy Senior Citizens Center, on the north side of the city, where 38 seniors enrolled. The more experienced members would assist the beginners in improving their skills. When GACS acquired a handicapped accessible facility on Pulaski in 1991, the classes were moved there. Knitting, crocheting, and embroidery created by the Fabric Arts class was displayed at the Levy Center and the State of Illinois Building in Chicago. After GACS disbanded in 2002, the class continued for several years at the Copernicus Senior Center on the Northwest side of the city.
In the fall of 1986, GACS presented a three-day film festival that focused on the struggle of the Greek people to assimilate into American society and at the same time preserve their own heritage and identity. The films included America, America, the award-winning film by famed director Elia Kazan. Sociologist Charles Moskos conducted the discussion following the screening.
Also featured were two documentary films by Doreen Moses: A Village in Baltimore: Images of Greek American Women, that showed the role of women in the Greek patriarchal society; and There’s One on Every Corner: Manhattan’s Greek Owned Coffee Shops. Moses led the discussion that followed.
The final film, Goodnight Socrates, focused on the impending loss of much of Chicago’s Greek town on Halsted Street because of the construction of a highway as well as the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. The film writer, Maria Moraites, conducted a lively discussion about the film. The Hellenic Society of DePaul University, a student group, cosponsored the film series and arranged for the use of the venue free of charge.
In 1992, GACS also cosponsored a series of Greek films by Theo Angelopoulos and Costas Gavras at the Film Center of the Art Institute. In 1994, GACS premiered the film, Solstice, by cinematographer Jerry Vasilatos. In 1996, it cosponsored, “Uniquely Greek: The Films of Pantelis Voulgaris.” The mid-career retrospective of Voulgaris’s films was also in collaboration with the Film Center of the Art Institute.
From 1989 to 1998, many literary luminaries were featured. Some of the programs were funded by grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Office of Fine Arts.
Harry Mark Petrakis, the chronicler of the Greek American experience, read selections from his books in 1987 and 1988; short story writer Theano Papazoglou Margaris recited from the works of Greek American writers in 1988 and 1989; and Nickos Lambros, presented excerpts from his book Odysseus, His Americanization in 1989. During that same year, Beatriz Badikian, Marianthe Karanikas, and John Dalapas read their poems about the immigrant experience. In 1996, Christopher Janus presented a program entitled, “A Conversation with Christopher Janus,” which was followed by the screening of Goodbye Miss Fourth of July based on his book of the same title. In 1998, Nick Papandreou, read from his novel, A Crowded Heart. Dalapas and Margaris presented in the Greek language.
Music and Dance Programs
GACS had several programs showcasing Greek music and dance. They included:
Two music and dance programs at DePaul University in 1987, which featured a Greek dance troupe; clarinetist Jim Stoynoff; musicians Stratos and Panos, who sang songs of the Greek islands; the Vasilios Gaitanos band, as well as a lecture by anthropologist Neni Panourgia on rembetika.
Two lectures by music historian Dino Pappas who explained the history of Greek music in America, using recordings to illustrate his lecture.
A series of Greek dance performances and workshops conducted in parishes throughout Illinois in 1990 and 1991. Reverend Nikitas Lulias, the chancellor at the Diocese, consulted about this program, as well as giving presentations about Greek dance. The performances and workshops featured the Apollo Dance Troupe. The program was done in cooperation with the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Chicago.
A 1994 concert by a young composer, Thanasis Zervas, who set to music the poems of Yorgos Kourvetaris.
A 1994 performance by pianist Vasilios Gaitanos at a lively Greek hot-spot, Deni’s Den.
Beginning in 1987 and continuing through 1996, GACS became a cosponsor of a series of Greek Nights held at several popular Chicago night clubs. They featured food, fashion shows, art exhibits by Greek American artists, and performances by Greek American musicians. GACS received a portion of the cover charge and sold tickets to the door prize raffle. Through these events, GACS reached out to younger members of the Greek community.
Strains on Ethnic Pride Conference
From 1988 to 1992, GACS received four Illinois Humanities Council (IHC) Grants. The first program funded through IHC was entitled “Strains on Ethnic Pride: Conflicts Between the New and Old Immigrants in the Greek and Assyrian Communities.” The 1988 conference, which attracted 150 participants, explored the strains between the pioneers who immigrated during the first wave of immigration and those who arrived during the second wave.
This conference was done in collaboration with the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation (AUAF), with the AUAF acting as the fiscal agent. Elaine Thomopoulos, John Psiharis, and John Nimrod coordinated the conference. Nimrod, a former state senator, was a leader in the Assyrian community and active in the AUAF.
At this time, Thomopoulos was working as a consultant to the AUAF, writing grants and administering their humanities and arts programs, as well as being involved with GACS. Prior to being hired by the AUAF, Thomopoulos had developed a government-funded program for the Assyrian elderly through Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. John Psiharis had also been involved with that program and thus had developed ties to the Assyrian community. Steve Frangos was the lead writer for the Illinois Humanities Council grant that provided most of the funding for the conference.
The two-day weekend conference was held at the Loyola University Campus, which was offered free of charge because of the co-sponsorship of the Loyola student group. The conference featured 40 Greek and Assyrian scholars and community leaders who had been selected by a committee composed of both Greek and Assyrian members.
The opening day of the conference was followed by Assyrian and Greek food and lively Greek and Assyrian folk dancing. Themes of the panel presentations included history, religion, politics, fraternal organizations, literature, education, family, religion, and politics. To reach the Greek-speaking audience, author Theano Margaris presented a program in Greek.
The conference explored the challenges each community faced, with active audience participation after each panel presentation. The conference focused on the similarities and differences between the two ethnic communities and the strains that were apparent in the pioneer immigrants and the newcomers within each community.
The interethnic cooperation that was initiated in the conference became the model for two of the three subsequent programs funded in part through the Illinois Humanities Council. Although the main emphasis of these two programs was the Greek community, many of the programs included scholars and community leaders from other ethnic communities. Several were presented at venues such as Ukrainian churches and the Italian Cultural Center.
Greek-Americans in the Workplace, 1888-1988
“Greek-Americans in the Workplace, 1888-1988,” funded in large part through the Illinois Humanities Council and presented in 1988, included 15 lectures and one radio program. Speakers represented various communities, including Italian, Southeast Asian, and Chinese.
Lectures in this series included:
“The Historical Development of the Greek Immigrant Work Experience in Illinois” by Andrew Kopan, Ph.D., with comments by Stanley Rosen at the Copernicus Foundation, Chicago.
“From Peddlers to Bankers: Greeks in American Fiction” by Alexander Karanikas, Ph.D., at DePaul University, Chicago and Lincoln Land Community College, Springfield.
“The Greek Professional and Entrepreneur” by Yorgos Kourvetaris, Ph.D., at DePaul University Stuart Center, Chicago and at Rockford College, Rockford.
“The Greek Work Ethic” by Yorgos Kourvetaris, Ph.D., with a response by Stanley Rosen at the Copernicus Foundation, Chicago and at St. Sophia Church, Elgin.
“The Greek American Woman at Work” by Elaine Thomopoulos, Ph.D., at the Copernicus Foundation and the Diplomat West in Elmhurst. Bernarda Wong, executive director of Chinese American Service League, addressed the theme as it related to Chinese women at the Chicago program and San L. O., program director of Southeast Asia Center, spoke about Southeast Asian women at the Elmhurst lecture.
“The Greek Work Ethic” by George Christakes, Ph.D., with comments by Stanley Rosen at Governor’s State University, University Park.
“A Greek-American Story-Teller at Work” by Harry Mark Petrakis at St. Athanasios Greek Orthodox Church, Aurora.
“Immigrant Academia: Greek Intellectuals in Illinois” by Fotios Litsas, Ph.D., at the Copernicus Foundation in Chicago and St. Nicholas Church, Oak Lawn.
“The Greek Worker as Portrayed in Literature,” an afternoon of readings and observations by award-winning author Harry Mark Petrakis at the Copernicus Foundation.
“Peripheral Patriots: The Network of Greeks in Antioch and Libertyville in the 1920s” by Steve Frangos at the David Adler Cultural Center, Libertyville and Lake County Museum, Wauconda.
“The Greek Work Ethic and Comparison with the Italian Experience ,” a radio presentation by George Christakes, Ph.D., Elaine Thomopoulos, Ph.D., and Dominic Candeloro, Ph.D. at WCGO-AM radio.
Lecture Series: “Ethnic Identity and Leadership Development: The Greeks in Illinois”
“Ethnic Identity and Leadership Development: The Greeks in Illinois” was presented from 1990 to 1991 at venues throughout the state of Illinois. Seventeen humanists discussed the ethnic experience as it related to leadership development. Eight ethnic groups were represented, and 19 lectures given. The final report reads that “these lectures have helped to bring together these diverse groups, exchange ideas, learn from each other and discuss the future together.”
The lectures organized by GACS under this grant were:
“Ethnic Diplomats: New Leadership in America in the 21st Century” with David Roth, Midwest Director of the Institute for American Pluralism, American Jewish Committee. A response was given by Connie Seals, a Black woman who had been active in the Civil Rights movement and was President of C-Bren Communications Corp. It was held in the downtown offices of the Illinois Ethnic Consultation, which was part of the American Jewish Committee. This was the inaugural event of the series.
“A Definition of Leadership and the Exploration of Ethnics as Leaders” presented by Michael Bakalis, Ph.D., professor at Loyola University, with a response by Peter Porr, executive director, Southeast Asia Center. The event, held at DePaul University, was co-sponsored by the Hellenic Society of DePaul University, Hellenic Professional Society of Illinois, and the Institute of American Pluralism. Bakalis also spoke to this topic during a lecture at St. Anthony Greek Orthodox Church in Springfield.
“Ethnic Leadership and the Development of the American Labor Movement” by Stanley Rosen, professor of Labor and Industrial Relations, University of Illinois at Chicago, and James Chiakulas, Director of Region 36, Illinois Education Association. The event was cosponsored by Montay College and the Institute for American Pluralism and held on the college’s campus in Chicago.
“Ethnicity and Patriotism” by George Anastaplo, J.D., professor at the University of Chicago, at the Copernicus Foundation and at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
“Leadership Development in the Polish and Greek Communities” by Helena Lopata, professor at Loyola University, with a response by Charles Moskos, Ph.D., professor at Northwestern University, at the Copernicus Foundation in Chicago.
“Problems of Leadership Development within Chicago’s Ukrainian Community” by Myron Kuropas, Ph.D., with a response by Yorgos Kourvetaris, professor at Northern Illinois University. The lecture was held at Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Church in Palatine Illinois and at Saints Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Church, Chicago.
“The Role of Ethnic Arts, Youth Programs and Leadership” by Margie McLain, executive director of Urban Traditions, at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in East Moline, Illinois and at DePaul University in Chicago.
“Leadership in the Italian Community: The Scallabrini Order” by Dominic Candeloro, professor at Governor’s State University, and the “Failure of the Greek Community to Build a Hospital” by George Christakes, Ph.D., professor at Harold Washington College, Chicago. The program was held in the GACS center at Alvernia Place and at the Italian Cultural Center in Stone Park.
“Ethnic Leadership and the Development of the American Labor Movement” by Stanley Rosen, Professor of Labor and Industrial Relations, University of Illinois at Chicago, with responses from James Chiakulas, director of Region 36, Illinois Education Association and Fred Gardaphe, who was a Ph.D. student at University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) and active in the Italian community. The program was held at the Italian Cultural Center and was preceded by a delicious Italian dinner and a tour of their center and museum, which included an exhibit about the Italians of Chicago.
“A Celebration of the Greek-American & Ethnic Woman” held at DePaul University and moderated by Evangeline Gouletas, American Invesco. The program featured Connie Callinicos, author of American Aphrodite: Becoming Female in Greek America, Louise Kerr, Ph.D., professor at UIC, and Bernarda Wong, Executive Director of Chinese American Service League. Callinicos spoke about Greek women, Kerr about Latina women, and Wong about Chinese women.
A press release prepared by the Illinois Ethnic Consultation promoting the inaugural lecture, “Ethnic Diplomats: New Leadership for America in the 21st Century,” described David Roth’s talk:
David will discuss new leadership trends in ethnic and racial communities and the meaning of those trends for Illinois and the nation. He will cite examples of coalitionally-minded ethnic leaders who are highly motivated to play diplomatic roles. Such leaders establish and maintain relations with other communal groups and with organizations and leaders in the civic mainstream. For this reason, he refers to them as “Ethnic Diplomats.”
Most Ethnic Diplomats pursue careers in business, government or the professions and many are active in civic affairs. They bring compassionate values from their community into a society that is highly bureaucratic and sometimes overly rigid in its response to human needs. In return, they take back to their communities the following skills: in using the law to combat discrimination, the social sciences to measure and analyze bigotry, and the arts and humanities to tell powerful personal stories of struggles against injustice.
Traveling Exhibit: “O Cosmos: The Private Lives and Public Celebrations of the Greeks in Illinois”
The fourth Illinois Humanities Council funded project, “O Cosmos: The Private Lives and Public Celebrations of the Greeks in Illinois,” featured an exhibit that was shown from 1994 to 1997 in four venues. It was viewed by tens of thousands. The venues included the State of Illinois Building in downtown Chicago, the Hellenic Museum in Chicago, Assumption Greek Orthodox Church at 601 S. Central in Chicago, and Greek-American Community Services. The exhibit covered the period of 1886 to 1990 and focused on the difference between what the Greek community presents in civic celebrations for the American public and their everyday life experiences. Steve Frangos, the lead author of the grant, provided research material and narrative. He said he got his inspiration from the Greek saying, Ti tha leei o cosmos (What will people say), which refers to the concern Greeks have about the community judging their actions.
O Cosmos panel coverage ranged from snapshots of early pioneers, picture brides, and family portraits to a Greek dramatic production entitled “The Return of Odysseus” originally held at Hull House in 1899. Other representations consisted of the 1917-1918 Liberty War Bond Drive Rally, as well as depictions of life in a small town café in Antioch, Illinois, and the Rassogianis suburban ice cream shop and candy store. Many photographs were provided courtesy of the Andrew T. Kopan and Peter Dickson collections.
Besides showcasing the exhibit, GACS presented lectures as part of the project. In 1992, Dan Georgakas, professor at Queen’s College CUNY, initiated the project by speaking about “Greeks in the Labor Movement” at Swedish Covenant Hospital, a program which was attended by about 150 people. In 1995, Mary Ann Johnson, executive director of Hull House, gave a slide presentation at Hull House about the Greek American community and Hull House. The third program was given by Andrew Kopan, professor at DePaul University, and Lou Mitchell, a local restauranteur and philanthropist, at the Chicago Historical Society. Other speakers included Fotis Litsas, who spoke at the Hellenic Museum, and Elaine Thomopoulos, who spoke at the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago.
The Coalition of Limited English-Speaking Elderly (CLESE)
In 1987, under the auspices of the City of Chicago Department of Aging and Disability, ten organizations, including GACS, interviewed seniors regarding their needs, including their command of the English language. GACS arranged for the translation of the questionnaire into Greek and interviewed 150 seniors. The resulting needs assessment of the ten organizations found that because of language and cultural barriers, the elderly often did not access the services they needed. John Psiharis and Elaine Thomopoulos convened a meeting of the ethnic organizations at the Elysion Restaurant in July 1987 in order to discuss the possible formation of a new multiethnic organization. This meeting led to the incorporation of the Coalition of Limited English-Speaking Elderly (CLESE) in 1989. CLESE received consistent funding from the Illinois Department on Aging and through a number of grant programs, including the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Retirement Research Foundation, and Chicago Community Trust. GACS was a founding member of the organization and Psiharis became president of the board, an unpaid position. The collaborative spirit of CLESE members led to major improvements in service provision to limited and non-English speaking elderly. CLESE today has 54 member organizations.
Honoring Outstanding Contributors to the Community
From 1987 to 1998, in keeping with its motto, “Working to Preserve our Heritage,” GACS organized twelve annual dinner-dances which honored Greek Americans who had made outstanding contributions to the community. During these annual affairs, GACS recognized philanthropists, authors, journalists, politicians, entrepreneurs, and educators, as well as Greek American organizations and media. Beginning in 1992, GACS added an Efharisto Award to honor individuals or organizations that, through their support, had a significant effect on GACS.. Those honored were: Chicago Community Trust (1992), Retirement Research Foundation (1993), Illinois Masonic Medical Center (1994), Chris Tomaras (1995), Irene Antoniou (1996), Eleni Bousis (1996), Dr. Kioutas (1996), Loukas Pergantas (1996); and the Michael Reese Health Trust (1998).
The Demise of GACS
Unfortunately, Greek-American Community Services met its demise in 2002. The reason included that the State of Illinois was in arrears for its reimbursement for the Day Care participants. Also, GACS found it difficult to raise funds since two other community organizations, the Greek-American Nursing Home Committee and the Hellenic Museum (now known as the National Hellenic Museum), were competing for funding. Even though Greek-American Community Services had tried to stay afloat by selling the building and pulling equity from it, they could not pay the salaries of its staff. They closed down.
In 2020, Thomopoulos was interviewing staff and friends of GACS to gain more information for this article. Interestingly, four interviewees remembered something very odd: a ghost that was named Johnny. The ghost only did his mischief when the two Johns were together. They were Executive Director John Psiharis and Director of Cultural Arts John Rassogianis. When Johnny made his appearance, chairs would tip over on their own. Thomopoulos remembers sitting at the Taverna Restaurant on Lincoln Avenue with the two Johns. She witnessed a chair on the other side of the table fall over. One person reported a chair levitating, hitting him. Johnny hid coats and according to Psiharis sent little creamers sailing across the room. Having a priest read prayers did not help, according to Rassogianis. Afterwards, he found his coat in the trash can.
Despite the minor annoyances of Johnny, the dedicated staff, volunteers, and board of directors of GACS achieved a great deal. During the 19 years of its existence from 1983 to 2002, GACS accomplished the following:
Expanded efforts to explore, preserve, celebrate, and understand the Greek American experience through unique and far-ranging programs in the arts and humanities; the programs featured many of the community’s best, brightest, and most talented artists and humanists and were presented throughout the State of Illinois.
Collaborated with other Greek American churches and organizations to bring the humanities, arts, and educational programming to the community.
Initiated greater interethnic and multicultural cooperation, communication, and understanding.
Participated in efforts that led to improvements in social service delivery systems for vulnerable ethnic elderly.
Established an adult day care for the elderly as a viable care option in the eldercare continuum.
Spearheaded efforts to organize CLESE, an unprecedented multiethnic coalition that focused on the needs of limited and non-English speaking elderly and led to efforts to improve social service delivery to the vulnerable ethnic elderly.
Launched a movement that led to the establishment of the second Greek American nursing home in the United States, which is located in Wheeling, Illinois.
Although GACS closed its doors in 2002, services to the Greek community continued to be offered in subsequent years through the Hellenic Foundation. The Foundation maintained Hollywood House, a retirement residence, and offered information and referral services, advocacy, counseling, immigration, and home care services through their Hellenic Family and Community Services office located at 6251 W. Touhy, Chicago. However, in the last ten years, the Hellenic Foundation restructured its programs to address the needs of the Greek community in a more effective and efficient manner. It realized that Hollywood House was providing housing for only 50 residents from the Greek community. Therefore, the Foundation sold Hollywood House in 2007 and invested the monies from the sale. Focusing on its In Home Care Program, the Foundation has grown the Program to provide essential in home care to over 300 seniors a year and employs 195 staff and home care aides. With the investment earnings, the Hellenic Foundation implemented its Grant Program in 2016. In an effort to address the needs of its community, the Foundation’s Grant Program supports programs and organizations that benefit the Greek and Orthodox Christian communities in the Chicagoland area. Since the inception of the Grant Program, the Hellenic Foundation has funded over $1,000,000 in grant awards.
Since opening in 2001, the Greek-American Rehabilitation and Care Centre has continued to provide nursing care and rehabilitation to the elderly and disabled. Most of the residents are of Greek descent.
In 2020, the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago launched Project HOPE (Humanitarian Outreach and Philanthropic Engagement), a new ministry to address food insecurity and support stable housing in the Chicago area. By September 2020, according to the Metropolis website, Project HOPE distributed more than five tons of food and 2,000 meals to people in need. This food relief went to support 50 Greek Orthodox families as well as residents of abused and battered women’s shelters, senior citizen and assisted living communities, homeless teen shelters, low-income families, underserved communities, and orphans. HOPE partnered with a host of organizations in order to distribute this critically needed food relief, including: The Metropolis of Chicago Philoptochos, Chicago CRED, Deborah’s Place, Humboldt Park Solidarity Network, La Casa Norte, Lincoln Park Community Center, New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, The Night Ministry, Northern Illinois Food Bank, Primo Center for Women and Children, Rush University Medical Center, St. James Catholic Church and Food Shelter, and Stella’s Place.
This is in addition to programs that had been initiated earlier by individual churches. Examples of these programs included the Young at Heart Senior Citizens group at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago; as well as outreach efforts by the Assumption Church in Chicago, which served monthly homecooked lunches in the church hall to the people of the Austin neighborhood, and St. Andrews Church, which supported a monthly soup kitchen. This type of programs has been suspended because of Covid but will probably be resumed.
Cultural programs within the community are regularly sponsored by the National Hellenic Museum, Hellenic Link Midwest, and the Greek Women’s University Club. The Federation of Hellenic American Organizations of Illinois (ENOSIS) organizes the annual Greek Heritage Parade and related activities.
Elaine Thomopoulos was co-founder and administrator of Greek-American Community Services and was second vice-president of the Greek-American Nursing Home Committee board. Thomopoulos, who earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Illinois Institute of Technology, served as director of social services for the Hellenic Foundation; project director of the Community Advocacy Network of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois; and as a consultant to the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation and the American Jewish Committee. She is the curator of the exhibit, “Greeks of Berrien County, Michigan,” that is permanently displayed at the Annunciation and St. Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church in New Buffalo, Michigan. She was managing editor of “Books” and “Greek American Scientists,” supplements of The National Herald, a Greek American newspaper. Thomopoulos co-edited Organizing a Volunteer Program to Serve the Elderly; edited Greek-American Pioneer Women of Illinois, and is the author of Images of America: St. Joseph and Benton Harbor; Resorts of Berrien County; The History of Greece; and Legendary Locals of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. She edited Modern Greece, to be released in 2021.
John Psiharis was co-founder, first president and executive director of Greek-American Community Services from its inception in 1983 until 2001 and was a founding member of the Greek-American Nursing Home Committee where he served as a board member from inception through 2006. John is executive director of Chicago’s Irving Park Community Food Pantry, and co-owner and president of Big Helpers, Inc., a Chicago based business. John’s writing has appeared in a number of publications including The National Herald, WindyCityGreek.com and Hellenic Chronicle. Psiharis co-edited Organizing a Volunteer Program to Serve the Elderly. He is a contributor to Modern Greece, which will be released in 2021, and is the author of the upcoming book “Ya’Sou GACS: How Greek-American Community Services Transformed Chicago’s Greek Community,” which is expected to be released in 2021.
Editor’s Note (1): For additional photographs associated with the history of the GACS see here.
Editor’s Note (2): For additional historical material about the Greek American community in Chicago see the interviews at the Library of Congress