The annual New York gala of The Hellenic Initiative (THI) returned to New York for celebrating a milestone: its 11th anniversary. This year, THI managed to raise more than $2.5 million, making it the most successful fundraising event in the organization’s history. The black-tie event hosted more than 900 dignitaries and guests from the U.S., Canada, UK, Europe, and Australia.

Having managed the previous year to exceed $2 million in donations, THI Gala is considered one of the most prominent charity events in the Greek-American community. Over the last 10 years, The Hellenic Initiative has distributed more than 20 million dollars to programs and initiatives that seek to alleviate urgent humanitarian needs, while supporting the efforts for a sustainable and long-term economic recovery in Greece.

However, THI does not seem to rest on this success. As it gets ready to open its second chapter, the organization seems poised to take the next steps for expanding the scope of its support even further: from setting the goal to plant one million trees to promote Greece as a business destination, there has never been a shortage of ideas in THI.

This year’s honoree was entrepreneur and philanthropist Ted Leonsis, the founder and CEO of “Monumental Sports & Entertainment,” which is deemed a company with one of the most diverse ownership groups in all of sports. Mr. Leonsis is the majority owner and chairman of the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals, and since 2019 the WNBA Washington Mystics.

A share of the event’s proceeds will contribute to supporting the THI Summer Youth Academy, set to make its debut in July 2024 with Mr. Leonsis serving as the 2024 Academy Chair. This initiative will provide a comprehensive program featuring basketball coaching, life skills workshops, and mentoring sessions facilitated by basketball icons and special guests. In collaboration with Eurohoops, a renowned organization focused on basketball training and sportsmanship, THI has joined forces to craft an unforgettable summer experience for young Greeks with limited resources.

As Mr. Leonsis stated, “the Hellenic Initiative’s Youth Academy leverages the unifying power of sports to strengthen communities and create brighter futures. As an NBA and WNBA team owner – as well as owning teams in the NHL and across esports, I am proud to support this important endeavor. It sits at the intersection of my Greek heritage and my conviction that team sports, particularly basketball, have the potential to empower youth and drive meaningful, positive change.”

During an interview with “To Vima,” executive director, Peter Poulos, reflected on the ties that THI has forged between young Greek Americans and the motherland, the multifaceted programs that are currently underway, and the future course that THI might take for promoting Greece even further in the global stage.  

THI was founded in the midst of the Greek financial crisis with the goal to unite the diaspora for addressing the urgent humanitarian needs and facilitate the recovery of the economy. As Greece transformed over the last 10 years, how did you evolve your mission for keeping up with these changes?

You are correct in saying that Greece has evolved since the crisis began, and since THI was founded. As we all know, at the height of the crisis, Greece’s unemployment rate soared to almost 30 percent and youth unemployment was over 50 percent. It’s taken all of those years to create jobs and to decrease our unemployment rate to now where it’s at 10%. Even though it’s at 10%, which is much better obviously than 29%, it’s still not where it should be. It’s still the second highest unemployment rate in all of the European Union after Spain, and we still have a third of the population living at or below the poverty line, and there’s quite a few articles about how Greeks pay more for housing costs than anybody else in all of the European Union. So, even though we are no longer the sick man of Europe and we are rebounding, and there’s optimism, there’s still pain and suffering and there is still a lot of people that need help. For example, older people who had their pensions cut during the crisis. So, the crisis is still amongst us. There are always going to be people who need help in Greece. As an organization, our mission hasn’t changed, but the percentage of where we help may change. So, where we used to do more in crisis relief and economic development, now we do more in economic development than crisis relief. So, the balance is 60-40 economic development and crisis relief, whereas in the past it was the opposite.

In this year’s gala, you will celebrate your 11th anniversary. During this journey, what do you consider THI’s biggest accomplishment?

One of our biggest accomplishments is that we united the global Greek diaspora because there wasn’t really before us an organization that had done that. When this summer we did an online campaign for the wildfires in northern Greece we received over 4,700 individual donations from people living in 42 countries around the world. So, even though we have become the largest Greek-diaspora organization on the planet, there is still a long way for us to go. For instance, if we have 40,000 in our database, there are two and a half million Greeks in the United States. We still have a long way to go to connect with all of those Greeks that still aren’t part of our organization and still aren’t part of helping Greece and Greeks in Greece. So, I think one of our proudest accomplishments is the fact that we have united the global Greek diaspora. And one of our biggest challenges is that we need to continue to find Greeks in the diaspora to be part of our mission.

Last year we discussed about the “Plant A Tree in Greece” initiative and your predecessor told us that you committed to tackle these problems in the long run. How is this initiative evolving?

“Plant a Tree” is one of our strongest initiatives. And in fact, we partnered with a Greek organization on the ground called “We For All.” And they know where to plant trees and what kind of trees to plant and when to leave the forest alone and when to intervene. And so, we have planted thousands of trees with “We For All” already. And now we’ve just given them another chunk of contribution. And so, we’ll be planting in the first quarter of next year, we’ll be planting another 10,000 trees with “We For All.” And what’s important about our cooperation with them is we don’t just plant the trees with them and walk away. Our contributions pay for the planting of the trees and two years of care in order to ensure that those trees will survive.

And I should also mention that when we were in the process of building the tree program, we decided to reach out to the Jewish community because no one on the planet has had a more successful planted tree program than Israel has. And they have planted literally hundreds of millions of trees all over Israel and they have actually changed the climate of the country by planting trees. But part of what Israel did was that they reached out to their diaspora and said, let’s use the planted tree program to celebrate life’s events. So, it allows someone to plant a tree in memory of someone or in honor of someone to celebrate a birth, a baptism, a wedding, whatever it is. And so, we modeled our program after that program. And it’s no joke, we receive contributions every single day from somebody who’s planting a tree in memory or in honor of someone. So, the program is very alive and doing extremely well.

As the generations pass by and Greek-Americans become more assimilated, a lot of traditional organizations struggle to attract young people. However, we see THI being particularly popular among younger generations. How did you manage to excite and attract young people?

George Stamas, who’s our board president and founder, dreamt up the idea to do our “New Leaders” program. And then with our board chairman, Andrew Liveris, and the rest of the board members, moved forward with this. We wanted anyone who became a new leader to be part of the decision making on what was happening within “New Leaders.” And then on a parallel track, we also hired a young woman in Greece, who was a fashion blogger. And I happened to meet her at an event. And I said, ‘listen, you’re really cool, and we’re sort of not cool, and I need you your help to make us cool.’ So, we hired her to help build an online community. So, we moved forward with telling our story and building an online community, and then doing events with new leaders in cities around the globe that were very much focused on networking, but also focused on THI’s mission. And so, we would do a “New leaders” event here in New York, but we would tie it to a specific nonprofit organization that we were working with in Greece. And that formula really worked. I’m third generation Greek American. My parents were born here in the U.S. My grandparents were born here. My great grandparents all died in the United States. I moved back to Greece, not knowing the language and not really being connected in a big way. But I had this thing inside of me, part of my being that I wanted to connect with who I was as a person. And I wanted to connect with my heritage. I see that with like fifth and sixth generation young Greeks, who want to be part of our “New Leaders,” because they are looking for new ways to connect, in addition to the ways that our parents and grandparents connected to Greece.

Speaking about how successful the community has become, we see that THI has attracted a number of successful Greek-Americans, who were not involved in the traditional organizations of the community. Again, how did you manage to bring these people on board and reconnect them to their roots?

I think that one thing that we did was that we were very clear about our mission. And our mission is that we support Greeks in Greece. So, all the money that we raise goes directly back to Greece. In the beginning, that was a challenge. Greek-Americans were hesitant to support anything in Greece, because when they have done so in the past, they have been disappointed. I likened the relationship as one that a moth has to a light bulb. Like you are attracted to it, and the moth goes towards the light bulb, but every time it gets too close, it gets burned. And so, what we had to do on a parallel track with fundraising and bringing in new people to THI was to build trust in Greece as an institution. So, we developed a very stringent accreditation policy for the organizations that we support that they have to adhere to and we make sure that there is 100% transparency and accountability when it comes to receiving donations from us. And then we as an organization have the same thing. We know where every single penny has gone and how it’s been used. And I think that combination of things instilled trust in people and made them feel like that they could actually support Greece through THI. So that allowed us to attract people, who I think had never really been part of our community, to THI.

Although this is not stated in your mission, do you believe that given the caliber of your members THI has the potential to serve unofficially as an ambassador of Greece to the American business community and, thus, facilitating the effort to attract foreign investment in the country?

A lot of our board members are investing in Greek companies and they doing projects in Greece when they have never done so before. And not just our board members, but also donors and other people who have come to our economic development events. They have felt, have wanted to, but have always been a bit gun shy about getting involved in anything that had to do with Greece. There are so many great promising companies and smart entrepreneurs, and now there is a very friendly business environment. So, we see ourselves as a bridge between the diaspora and Greece to sort of help with that foreign investment.