Humanitarian Advisor to His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirane,
Durres and All Albania Primate of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania
Waubonsee Community College, Illinois
By Evelyn L. KentCommunity College Times
One gets the idea that Thoreau would have respected Penny Deligiannis – she does everything from conviction and sincere emotion. Her morality comes from within and affects the milieu in which she finds herself. She has not lived a life of quiet desperation.
But unlike Thoreau, she spent her self-described “adult formative years” not in quiet contemplation but in Albania involved in humanitarian aid.
In October 1995, Deligiannis, a graduate of Waubonsee Community College in Sugar grove, Ill.,, a graduate of Waubonsee Community College in Sugar grove, Ill., created and led the Autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church’s Diaconia Agapes (Service of Love), eventually directing 14 social and development programs throughout the country.
With some experience working on aid projects in Africa, Deligiannis dropped into a struggling program with little infrastructure because, “I always respond to challenges,” she said. The challenge was creating a program responsive to the needs of the poor in a nation struggling to make the transition from communism to a more open-market economy.
She intended to go for a year, “and literally for the first year, I felt like quitting every day,” Deligiannis said. “There was no heat, it was dead cold, and I didn’t know the language.”
What she did know was that the nursery school program, two health clinics, and a nascent agricultural loan program to farmers in the poor mountain regions were just the beginnings of what could be accomplished.
Daily, she and a staff of two drove to the projects to increase their impact and to nourish them. Eventually, there was a payoff. “We started growing bigger and bigger and bigger,” she said and the programs expanded into other parts of the country.
Then, in 1997, civil war broke out and most foreign aid workers evacuated the country. Deligiannis stayed. “I thought, ‘If I get on this helicopter right now, I personally am not going to be able to come back and look all of these people in the eye,’” she said.
The situation rapidly disintegrated over 48 hours, and Deligiannis was living a crash course in what anarchy actually means. Suddenly she, along with the Albanians, was living in a world without rules; survival mode kicked in. She and Diaconia Agapes adjusted their focus on how best to help people. In the three to four hours a day that the curfew was lifted, they distributed food and supplies.
When refugees started pouring into Albania from Kosovo, the program extended to help. All of these projects took on another element during the Kosovo refugees. Suddenly the Albanians who had been helped by Diaconia Agapes were helping refugees.
“We were able to realize the best in ourselves out of the whole situation,” Deligiannis said.
Crisis after crisis and recovery after recovery kept Deligiannis in Albania for seven years. When things were settled she decided that it was time to let Albanians take over the program they had worked so hard to establish. She returned to Illinois and now gives talks on the ongoing need to support the Albanians, as much for emotionally as financially.
Today there are more than 14 nursery schools through Albanian. There are also health clinics, a mobile dental unit, a hospital and a diagnostics center built through the church. “They’re all following a winning formula that was devised over the years,” Deligiannis said.
Deligiannis visited Albania this summer and saw what she already knew. “They’re doing a beautiful job without me.”
As for Deligiannis, after some soul searching she’s looking for another challenge in the international community. The Outstanding Alumni award helped with that focus, she said. “It was an affirmation that I’ve been doing the right thing all along. It was just this quiet message to keep on.”