How Fronditha gave meaning to ‘philanthropy’

Today, Fronditha is the largest Greek community organisation and its biggest employer, that is taking rapid steps towards the future

To try and explain to Victorian Greek elderly what Fronditha Care is and what services it provides is like trying to educate a Swiss man about the Red Cross.
You don’t explain the obvious and you don’t need to introduce what everyone is familiar with.
Not that this article was needed to educate Neos Kosmos readers on Fronditha’s mission. But, following the example of its president Mike Zafiropoulos, we need to recognise and remember the legacy Greek visionaries of 36 years ago sacrificed and fought for.
“The history of Fronditha is worth remembering. Sometimes we forget to acknowledge and recognise those pioneers, who identified with a particular cause, forecasted the importance of it in the future and then took all the necessary steps of planning and fundraising to establish what was required. This is what happened with Fronditha,” president Mike Zafiropoulos tells Neos Kosmos.
“I want to pay tribute to all of those visionary people. It took a lot of courage and the risks involved to establish an aged care home in those days were huge.”
Established at first as The Australian Greek Society for the Care of the Elderly, back in 1977, Fronditha was a committee of volunteers. Starting from radiothons and Victorian Greek community support, 36 years later Fronditha has grown to be a major community organisation and its biggest employer in the not-for-profit sector. Its four facilities in Victoria and one in New South Wales are home to around 400 residents and employ over 500 people.
Not everything went smoothly in the beginnings of the new body that aimed to establish a hostel for frail older persons who could not live securely alone. With the difficulties related with the Greek tradition of wanting to look after our parents at home, it took courage and education to hang on to the idea.
“If they didn’t take those initiatives we would be struggling now,” Zafiropoulos admits.
Of course, there are other, English language based aged care providers, you will notice. But it is Fronditha that recognises the religious and cultural needs of its Greek residents, their family connections.
“What we do is defined by the elderly themselves, not by us. If we get very positive feedback from residents and their families, then we know we are doing a good job.”
With a grant secured from the federal government and approximately half of the cost raised through a public appeal, it took Fronditha only six years to put the foundations to its first ever aged care facility at 94 Springs Road, Clayton South. The first hostel, Pronia, with 40 beds, was completed in October 1983.
The partnership between the Greek community of Victoria and Fronditha Care that enabled them to build this facility 30 years ago is the same one that recently made the Fronditha Care board embark on the venture to rebuild this successful nursing home.
With a building permit received from the City of Kingston, and loans and savings generated, Fronditha is now ready to commence building works in December this year. For the Clayton development, $8 million loan was given by the federal government, with interest rates different to those in the commercial world of loans.
“A major renovation and rebuilding will be undertaken on three facilities in Clayton South. The new two storey facility will have all the amenities to provide 24 hour care. The capacity will be increased to care for elders from the current 103 to 150 beds once it’s completed.”
“Even though we did try to renovate occasionally we knew that at some stage we would need to have a major development and this is what we are doing now. We are talking about $15 million and over worth development,” President Zafiropoulos explains.
Aged care is the responsibility of the Australian federal government, which is the biggest source of funding for Fronditha. Other sources of income come from the state government, the residents themselves and community fundraising.
Whenever talking about Fronditha, Mr Zafiropoulos has made it a habit to mention people like the family of the late Michael Grizos, Antonios Vitou, and many others whose significant donations have made Fronditha’s work possible.
It is these individuals, Mike Zafiropoulos says, who may be second or third generation Greek Australians, but recognise that Fronditha is worth supporting in such a significant way, that make volunteers like himself continue to offer their services.
“If Fronditha relied simply on the funding from the government, we wouldn’t have been able to provide the service and probably to exist, so it’s all that generosity of the community both in volunteerism and donations that makes us function the way we do.”
Fronditha Care has seen the Greek community of Australia provide support unheard of at its annual radiothon. It’s as if the community feels obliged to give back what Fronditha has provided for its elderly members. Not only residence and care services that enhance the well-being of elderly people, but also initiatives that cater for their cultural, linguistic and historical needs.
“It’s that sort of thing that makes volunteers like myself and my board colleagues continue to offer our services and time without any financial gain. It’s that generosity that makes this organisation function the way it does, and makes volunteers feel that it is worth the time.”
And the work that dedicated staff and hundreds of volunteers who work ‘full’ time for Fronditha provide, makes board members feel Fronditha has developed the meaning to the word our ancestors invented – philanthropy.
“That inability and loneliness to take care of themselves makes it imperative for organisations like Fronditha to substitute for the children and grandchildren, and I think we do that as well as one could expect. We want to look after them in the same way they would be looked after if their children were there.”
In 1998, a demographic and needs analysis study of Greek elders in Melbourne, completed for Fronditha by Con Tsingas, confirmed that the greatest period of need for services lies in the next 20 to 30 years.
According to Zafiropoulos, the increased number of residents at Fronditha correlates with a proportional increase of elderly people within the Greek community. And that increase will continue at least until 2026.
“The trend is upward until then, and at that point it will start gradually decreasing simply because the elderly proportion will not be with us as it reaches a certain age. It relates to migration patterns.
“The thing is, as a community we need to think strategically – our needs have changed from the early days when we first arrived in Australia. Our needs were to find employment, to buy a house, that our children were educated, and we have done so well compared to other communities that we should be proud of that. But the first generation, which was a majority, is now a minority, and that minority is getting smaller and smaller. As a consequence of the aging of our community, the biggest need that we face collectively is how we take care of our elderly, particularly as it’s ingrained within the Greek tradition and culture to be respectful to our elderly.”
“Our numbers are trying to catch up and respond to that increase but unfortunately building residential facilities is a very expensive business, and we will not be able to have as many facilities and beds as the community would require. But, we are doing our best to have as many as possible so we don’t have long queues.”
The next era of Fronditha’s growth, that commenced with this year’s opening of new Thornbury facilities, will continue in December when the demolition and rebuilding of Clayton South facilities take place. With the newly established facility in Thornbury gradually growing in numbers, and the Clayton facility to be completed within 12 months, the numbers of both staff and residents at Fronditha will increase.
On the eve of demolition of the first and the oldest Fronditha residence, emotions are involved. Whenever such an important event as the 30th anniversary is celebrated, the mind of the board members turns back to that very first year, to people who were involved.
“It’s important for us to identify and continue to recognise those visionary people, who established the facility. And yes, there are people who are emotionally attached to Pronia, like some of the board members who have been around for a long time, and talk with such passion about those years. Difficulties, sacrifices, the willingness of people to contribute with their skills… It’s an emotional thing to see the old Fronditha go, but we are all looking forward to modernising the facility – ultimately we have a continuous improvement approach for all our facilities and services and we want to do the best for all our residents,” states Mr Zafiropoulos, concluding our discussion.