Cyprus Mail

From feeding one family to feeding 900: the woman with the heart of gold

Pavlina Patsalou receives her heart of gold from Paphos mayor Savvas Vergas

By Bejay Browne

AFTER a harrowing year of helping to feed hundreds of desperate families of the Paphos district, a tireless charity worker is looking forward to spending precious time with her own family this Christmas.

Pavlina Patsalou started helping just one needy family in Paphos nearly three years ago, she is now helping to feed and clothe close to 900.

Pavlina was awarded the Paphos heart of gold award this month but feels undeserving of the recognition, as she is “only doing what anyone else would do”.

But the truth is, not everyone would do what she does.

The Paphos business woman heads up Solidarity charity- which was established about 18 months ago-along with Paphos councilor George Sofokleous. But the story of how this charity was formed all started with just one family asking Pavlina for help.

“A chance encounter with an Armenian woman who came into my shop made me realise just how bad the situation was in Cyprus,” she said.

The woman, 32, had come to live in Cyprus to be close to her mother. She visited Pavlina’s children’s clothes shop as she was passing with her mother and two children. They later found out that their homes backed onto each other. “I asked her if she would like to help out at my shop and she did.”

Pavlina soon realised that the family had next to nothing; no beds, chairs, or anything to cook on, and very little food.

“After that I realised that I had to help. We filled the house-I called friends to donate items and I also gave them furniture and things from my house. I thought she needed them more than I did.”

This led Pavlina to discuss the dire situation facing many families with a close friend who works at Paphos municipality

“We decided to hold an event so that people would know that the municipality social welfare were there to help. I began by helping the municipality. As the numbers grew, we decided that the municipality would help the people within their boundaries and I would help the people in the surrounding villages.”

For about eight months, Pavlina helped numerous families by operating a food drive out of her shop.

“I started with about 20 families and it mushroomed from there. I met George Sofokleous at the municipality and he said that he wanted to help, as he saw I was on my own.”

Since then, Pavlina’s life has been turned upside down. Up at 5.30am every morning to clean her house and prepare food for her family, her phone doesn’t stop ringing until late at night. Her entire life has been consumed by Solidarity which she says she now views as her third child.

“If the municipality can’t help some people, then we do. We registered as a charity about a year and a half ago and we don’t turn people away.”

Born in Paphos in 1966, Pavlina went to school there and met her husband George Menelaou, who is ten years her senior, when she was just 15; the pair got engaged the same year. Pavlina gave birth to her first child, daughter Xenia, when she was 18 years old. Son Andreas followed a few years later.

The first years of marriage and motherhood were tough economically, says Pavlina, which is why she empathises with the dire situation so many young families in Paphos are facing these days.

“It was very difficult for us because my husband didn’t have a job for the first year or so and my daughter grew up with only second hand clothes. That’s why I wanted to open a children’s clothes shop. I care so much about babies and what the families are having to cope with now;  I passed through some difficult times myself so I can understand how people feel.”

Pavlina opened her first children’s clothes shop in the centre of Paphos old town on October 1989.It has since moved to a new location.

“My mother helped us with money and food and initially, we lived with her and my father in their house in Paphos.”

Her 76-year-old father was more recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and is being cared for primarily by Pavlina’s 73-year-old mother. She says this is very tiring for her mother and she tries to help out her family as much as she can.

“My married name is Menelaou but I use my family name of Patsalou for my father. I have three brothers and sisters who I love very much but my father only seems to be able to recognise me now.”

The volunteer says she doesn’t get much time to spend with her own family and has to ensure that she organises herself well to be able to run her home, her business and Solidarity.

She says her family means everything to her. Pavlina finishes work every day at around 7.30pm and then cooks dinner for her family- her son lives at home and her daughter eats with them every day.

“I try to spend time with George, my husband, but he is busy too. He works at Yeroskipou municipally and also grows olive trees and keeps chickens-he likes to spend time at his land.”

Pavlina is a strong but sensitive woman and is often reduced to tears by the desperate stories of needy people she hears everyday.

“My husband and mother especially worry about me being stressed with the pressure that comes with what we’re doing at Solidarity, but I have God with me and I will always help anybody who needs it.”

She continued: “I never thought there would be this many families in need of help. Nobody could believe that Cyprus was going to be in this situation. Every family we see is desperate, it’s heartbreaking.”

This Christmas will be especially poignant for Pavlina and her family, as she says it may be the last they are able to spend with her father as he is so ill.

“I don’t know if my father will be with us next year, so the time we have together is very important to us all.”

The family will spend Christmas day at Pavlina and George’s house cooking up a feast of traditional Cypriot dishes including souvla and macaronia.

Pavlina has been forward planning and stockpiling items for the last six months to ensure that all of the 900 Solidarity families will have bags of essentials this Christmas, as well as fresh meat and traditional Cypriot sweets. All of the babies will have enough powdered milk and nappies.

She said :“I want to thank all of the people who have helped us so much this year, without them it wouldn’t be possible to continue, but we have to remember that its not just about Christmas, these people have to eat food every day.”

The modest charity worker admitted that she is “quite stressed” and never has time for a holiday or to relax.

“I just don’t have time for anything. I like swimming, walking and nature. I also used to like to go for a coffee with my friends but some of them don’t speak to me now because they think that I don’t want to see them, I do, I miss them very much but I just don’t have time these days.”

She has vowed that even as numbers of needy continue to grow every day, Solidarity will try to ensure every needy family of the district has at least something to eat.

“I think the numbers coming to us for help will continue to increase over the next two years. The last thing I think about at night is how I will accomplish helping them and how will I get enough food. I wake up in the night worried and in the morning this is the first thing I think of. This is my life.”

Pavlina says her faith is what helps her through the tough times.

“I strongly believe that I always have God with me. Sometimes when the Solidarity house is empty, something happens and we have what we need. I believe everything will be alright in the end.”

She said: “My hope for the future is that people will start to help out their neighbours if they are in a position to do so and also that the government of Cyprus will finally step in to help.”


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