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Alpha’s 2nd Birthday celebrated by proud ‘godparents’ all around the globe

From New Zealand to Ireland, US to Korea, Alpha has a lot of well-wishers as it made its second trip around the sun.

“I never counted birthdays… even when I could!” These are the (what I believed to be) wise words of an old neighbour of mine called Martin – an elderly, West of Ireland farmer who lived well into his ninth decade. Well, we think he was about 90-something.

Martin probably had a point, well at least when measuring our own years of life. However, in May of this year, a special birthday made me rethink Martin’s words. It wasn’t a person’s birthday though, instead it was that of Alpha. Specifically, its second birthday.

Alpha is the community centre and spiritual home of Samos Volunteers. Today it’s almost hard to imagine SV life without Alpha, but of course until May 2017, this is exactly how life went on. 

I was fortunate enough to be in the role of Education Coordinator at the time and looking back at old photos, correspondence, and memories from that time I’ve tried to patch together where the spiritual home of SV then lay. SV1 was certainly a social hive; we even had Christmas dinner there. Paradise Hotel hosted the Wednesday meetings. Kouzina was the daily go-to for lunch. Kedros beach or Coffee Lab could also lay a strong claim. In truth though, we had no home.

A pre-Alpha Wednesday meeting in Paradise Hotel (Spring 2017)

Pre-Alpha, we were providing informal education in around ten different locations. Throughout a day, volunteers and learners alike could be found in Paradise Hotel, Samos Hotel, the Arsis office, Save The Children’s CFS, Praxis shelter, the municipality garden, the Hellenic Red Cross cabin, the olive tree, the area above the camp, the garden, Macro apartments, or just about anywhere that would or could have us. Whiteboards, folders, and notebooks were all seen as portable stationery. Wheelie bags full of classroom materials were a common sight throughout Vathi, as were pop-up lessons. Under trees, in hotel rooms, or office attics. Things were hectic. We needed a home and we were desperate as just about everything was being stretched. By my count, we viewed 10 buildings over ten weeks and all ten were unsuitable; too small, too expensive, too far from the camp, too much work to be done. 

Two unaccompanied minor boys avail of a €14 whiteboard, while an eager neighbour seeks to join Praxis advanced English class (March 2017).

Then something happened. It was a routine lunch time and the majority of us sat in the aforementioned Kouzina restaurant. Kouzina was where we all ate lunch. Whether you were returning from a crazy morning of clothes distribution or fuelling up before undertaking a trek to the olive tree, at Kouzina you could catch up with your team and exchange stories. Whispers were rife that Kouzina was closing and relocating to a seafront location. We were initially indifferent. Damn, our go-to place soon to be out of comfortable walking distance of the camp. Oh well. 

It was only over those following few days that we saw the large dumpster in the Kouzina carpark fill up little by little as a building slowly cleansed itself. We all thought it, but no one dared suggest it. It was too good to be true and we had been rejected by so many suiters. Its size, location, modern design – nah if it looks too good to be true, then it is. How we came to an agreement and signed a lease is probably a blog post on its own, but we were moving into Kouzina and we wasted no time in getting things up and running. During this part of the project there are simply too many brilliant people to thank individually but I hope they are reading this with a smile or as I did watch the Alpha birthday video with watered eyes.

If Alpha is still a toddler at two, then SV as an organisation was a young adult at the same age. We were growing up and we started taking on a lot more responsibility. Running more of our own activities rather than on behalf of larger NGOs. We did all the things a late teen/early twenties kid would do; we moved out and learned quickly that it was a big bad world out there. And like all headstrong youngsters, we were pretty tight for cash. 

In around January 2016, I remember buying new whiteboards for kids activities and Women’s English; they were about the size of a large serving tray and cost €14. “Mind these, and don’t let the kids destroy them, we really can’t afford to replace them!” I’d warn my fellow teachers. At the time this was a tricky expense. Fast-forward a few months and there we were, buying four whiteboards, all colossal, all around €80-€100. I remember strapping them to the roof of the car and thinking to myself “what have I gotten myself into here?!” Later that day, we realised we needed to buy air conditioning units. They were about €5,000. I nearly went into cardiac arrest. How the heck are we going to pull this off? 

Pizza delivery! Unpacking the new whiteboards with a helping hand

Our first few days in Alpha were less than ideal and we encountered plenty of teething problems. In fact, after getting the keys and checking out the space for the first time one of our community volunteers hit his head off a low hanging concrete beam and was quite shaken. We were too. It also didn’t have a name for about a fortnight. Up stepped one of SV’s driving forces with the suggestion Alpha. I liked it immediately as it was easy to say for everyone (ever the language teacher). But when she explained that Alpha had multiple meanings, I adored it.  

Alpha [noun]:

  1. The first letter of the Greek alphabet,

  2. the first; beginning, 

  3. used to designate the brightest star in a constellation.

  4. A popular brand of Greek beer which we drank 

Jon, a long-term SV community volunteer, admires one of our early schedules in Alpha 

We were up and running and quickly learning to navigate our way around running a community centre. The challenges were ehm… challenging. There was a lot of coffee drunk. Some late nights and early mornings. Some furniture coordination which required shouts of ‘pivot’ among friends. A banning of permanent markers from the premises (oh those precious whiteboards). Roars of “Who left this window OPEN OVERNIGHT?!” There was the unexpected arrival of around twenty 14-year-old ‘dreamers’ and scheduling conflicts that would have NASA employees pulling out their hair. But, and I say this only in hindsight, it started to feel like a home. And it was. If you can find another name for bricks and mortar which willingly hosts chaos, bubbles with love, and wipes away tears of joy and pain then Alpha is that.  

Thousands of miles from its doors, many of us watched the recent video where Alpha go-ers wished it well on its second birthday. It was posted in our Board Members chat group. The love heart emojis came pouring in from New Zealand, Spain, UK and Greece. I’m in Ireland. In a library surrounded by stressed out students, I decide to press play. The building looks well. Fresh paint I see, those benches were a good idea. Everyone is gleaming and sharing their kind words. “Alpha for me is like an Angel” explains one eager student. I press pause. Instantly. And I send a different emoji. The crying face one. I can’t. Jesus, I’m the worst absent godparent ever. I can’t do this every year. Martin is right – I’m going to stop counting birthdays even when I can.

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