By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. — “We never knew Thanksgiving as a holiday in Greece,” said Greek American Homeowners Association member Fotios Niotis. “But as Greeks, we appreciate this American holiday perhaps even more than Americans because we have so much to be grateful for from this country.” And it is with this spirit of gratitude for what they have received that the members of the association in Astoria give back to their community every year by hosting an annual Thanksgiving Dinner at their headquarters.
Fifteen years ago, Peter Stathatos, the association’s current vice president, planted the seed for the event two months after his mother passed away. He recalls his loss with tear-filled eyes, but the realization of what has developed since then because of this tribute to her memory, brings a smile to his face.
“My wife, daughters, son, and grandchildren have all helped here in one way or another,” he said.
Stathatos’ suggestion that the association hold the event was enthusiastically embraced 15 years ago by construction company owner George Fakiris, whose father had died a couple of years before Stathatos’ mother and who has since then supported the event in his father’s memory with significant monetary donations and an addition to the building’s structure to better facilitate the hard work done on this occasion.
“This year, we’re better organized. In the past, we were a little crowded together here, but now we’ve opened up more space. We obtained tables that were narrower than those used in prior years, so they didn’t take up as much space, and we improved the layout of the tables and chairs,” said association president George Alexiou.
According to association board member Irini Stathatos, who takes phone orders for deliveries to area homes and is the event’s public relations coordinator, “800 lunches were served last year. And while more than 30 dinners were delivered then to residents of the Hellenic-American Neighborhood Action Committee (HANAC) Archbishop Iakovos Senior Residence, that number more than doubled this year, with over 70 dinners delivered, she said.
This year, in the three days leading up to Thanksgiving, 200 turkeys were distributed to people who called for them. “We have a list of people that has grown over the years, and we call them to be sure they are still at the same location before we make deliveries,” Alexiou explained.
Thirty members of the organizing committee and more than 100 volunteers worked over a two-week period to put everything in place for a holiday dinner that many businesses and individuals contribute to and the whole community looks forward to every year.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing that the Alexious are doing and that the community does for the people of Astoria. I wish all the communities would do something like this and that we could do things like this for Easter or different holidays just to have people get together like that. It brings people so much closer. It’s an entertaining, uplifting thing, not sad,” said volunteer Stella Kordis as the Greek music played in the background. “There was one 85-90 year-old nicely dressed woman, who said she’d be coming next year too! It amazed me that she was actually planning ahead to next year too.”
Even young children were involved in the work on Thanksgiving Day. Mrs. Kordis’ young daughter Dimitra Vassilopoulos volunteered to help her mother package the salads for delivery. And 10-year-old Anastasia Vasilakos, who had been helping for the last four years, proudly noted her contributions. “I helped with the bread first, with a delivery, the rice, I helped other people, cleared the tables, and then I did the rice again.”
It was Anastasia’s godsister Angeliki Gousetis’ first year as a volunteer. Of the wide variety of work she was involved in, “helping the people,” was the highlight.
“Today is a beautiful day, not only for families, but for the whole community. Today we see the Homeowners Association, which every year has the largest celebration in the community, not only to feed those who do not have but to give all those who want to be together with others, their neighbors, the opportunity to be together like one large family. It is also a day during which we remember all the reasons for which we should be thankful,” Assemblyman Michael Gianaris said at the event. “And I’m thankful that we have an organization like the Homeowners Association that does this work today.
“It is an event that everyone in the community looks forward to, coming with enthusiasm to help so that we can do something small for all those in our midst who need a little help, for people who not only need food but also need companionship. It is a beautiful thing,” said Gianaris, who was accompanied by his father at the event and was looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner with his parents and his brother’s family.
Volunteer George Hadjiargyrou remembered one 80-year-old man who called from New Jersey a few years ago and asked if he could come to the dinner.
“‘Can I come to eat and stay for a couple of hours because I need people to talk to?’ he said. ‘I’ve been alone for three years and have no one to talk to.’ When he arrived, I gave him a glass of wine and he blessed everyone. This made me so happy, like I’d been given a million dollars.”