Greece: Alchemists of Compassion – “KE.PE.P” Center for Nursing Children

One year ago, I heard for the first time about the Center for Nursing Children (KE.PE.P) in the small city Lehena, in Ileia prefecture of Southwest Greece. The reportage was referring to the tragic death of a child from suffocation during the night. He was swallowing down pieces from his mattress. At that time, there was no closed circuit camera yet, and when the few nurses realized what had happened, it was unfortunately too late… I knocked at the door of the institution one winter morning. The administration and the staff not only opened the door to me, but they invited me to stay in their guest room where parents usually stay. But, there were never parents there. They expressed their despair that people who were outside the institution actually could never realise the harsh difficulties of the children’s everyday life. I started capturing the rough and tough conditions of looking after 79 children that suffer from the worst disabilities, and who live here totally forgotten even by their parents. Birth irregularities, severe psychokinetic impairments, and difficult cases of mental retardation constitute a mosaic of rare diseases that “could lead to ten PhDs within just one year”, according to the deputy minister of health and professor of paediatrics Mr Kostantopoulos. The total lack of stable medical presence and specialized nursing staff, forces the authorities to “protect” some of the children who suffer from self-destructive tendencies by closing them into wooden cages and locking them up. On the other hand, the staff says that is their only way to avoid overdoses of sedatives. The nursing staff constituting only 21 nurses men and women, do everything they can to take care of, to lullaby, to play with the children, giving all their soul and their courage. At the same time, similar institutions in Netherlands and in Germany, occupy 600 persons, meaning 4 specialized people to take care of each kid in more modern conditions. On the other side, the young, foreign volunteers create with their work and their presence, a warm environment found only in model European institutions. With the jubilant assistance of the volunteers, a child of mental disability can evaluate itself and learn through playing, drawing, dancing, walking or doing gymnastics. Such a dramatic place is accused by part of the press as “Souls Storage”; a small number of people do their best so that those children feel like they have found a home. As a result, most of the children have surpassed the expected age limit. Since 1987, when the “KE.PE.P” opened, there has never been any photo reportage inside the building. These are the first photographs that capture KE.PE.P’s story and reality. May the example of the solidarity and self-sacrifice of the nursing staff and the young volunteers, be followed by all of us. Text by © Yorgos Xepapadakos, Photographs by © Maro Kouri

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