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Christmas has never been my favorite holiday, especially during the last three years due to personal circumstances. Santa comes to Greece on New Year’s Eve anyway and he routinely throws my wish-list into the trash can.

However, last summer’s memories are quite a hard blow to the cynic in me. The summer overall was crappy enough, with a dissertation biting me in the bum and other important things falling apart. During these long, rainy, cold London days I did get a break though. To sunny, warm, beautiful, protesters-and-tear-gas-filled Athens. The main activity planned was the participation as a volunteer to the Special Olympics World Summer Games that were taking place in the city. It turned out to be a rollercoaster ride full of memorable – in a good and bad way – experiences.

I will sum up the bad, because they are worth mentioning, but not worth dwelling upon. First of all, there were big financial scandals associated with the Games. Unfortunately, it was due to the media coverage of these scandals that the majority of Greeks learned about the Special Olympics. Not the best start for sure. At the same time, the volunteers and in some cases even the athletes and the couches were subjected to horrible conditions due to lack of resources or poor organisation.

The attitude of the people towards the Games also spoke louder than words and revealed many Greeks’ attitude towards disability, especially intellectual disability. During my interview the people I spoke to kept repeating that the athletes are people with intellectual disabilities. Later I found out that there were many that had initially registered their interest in become volunteers but later withdrew because they realised what was special about the athletes. Many people I spoke to also refused to come to the Games as spectators because they didn’t want to “feel bad” as they “pitied” the “poor children”. This attitude, in combination with the unfortunate circumstances of the country during the days of the Games, resulted in very poor attendance, which mainly consisted of kindergartens, scouts, the families of the participants, other delegations and volunteers. Now and then you would see the odd parent with a few children on his/her trail and no clue about the Games’ programme. The venues were not very well kept. The coverage from international media was minimum. There was also a visible absence of dignitaries.

But enough with the bad. As a proud member of the aquatics team I probably had on of the best volunteering experiences in the Games, mainly thanks to the members of the  organising committee of the venue. The other volunteers were amazing, warm, friendly, and full of positive energy. The most memorable part of the experience though were the athletes themselves who offered joy, pride, suspense and pathos. I remember the amazingly thrilling relay where a young female athlete single-handedly won the race. A woman that finished last but was so proud and happy that started crying in the arms of a volunteer. A Greek mother’s tears after the completion of her daughter’s competition. A relay team that was overjoyed to have come third. A young Israeli athlete who armed with the sweetest smile was trying to persuade volunteers and delegation members to exchange pins with him. An American mother of two adopted children with disabilities, one of whom was an athlete, who was calm, cheerful and always encouraging me to stay in the shade.

The dearest memory to me though is connected to a golden metal and a young guy. We were cheering with other volunteers on the side of the swimming pool for Atish Anil Jadhav’s (a 19-year old swimmer and skater) victory in 400 meters. He came out ecstatic and I reached to shake his hand. He suddenly grabbed me and kissed me on the cheek leaving me blushing. Happy and proud of this achievement, he wanted to share his victory with everybody.

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Volunteering is not a form of exploitation. If communal life is based on people’s incapacity to support themselves on their own, then offering your services for free is a way to improve the life of the vulnerable, thus promoting everybody’s well being. It is not possible to depend solely on the state or on what money can buy. People should develop an understanding of their role as integral members of society, as society is each and every one of us. Offering one’s services for free will not bring a fundamental change to the world, but it will assist somebody in often unimaginable ways.

Furthermore, the goal of this post is not to raise sympathy or funds for the cause (of course, if you feel like contributing, you are more than welcome to do so). It is to celebrate the athletes’ amazing skills, potentials, determination and efforts. It is also to celebrate the contribution of coaches, parents, friends, supporters and volunteers who help the athletes occasionally or on a daily basis. It is not easy to live with a disability, either physical or intellectual. People with disabilities deserve to be accepted, embraced and helped out of the isolation of their homes. They are asking for love, friendship and acceptance and they have quite a lot to give back as well.