Hannes Richter

Austrian Legacy SOS Children’s Villages Celebrates 60th Anniversary

Hannes Richter

This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the founding of SOS Children’s Villages. Since 1949, SOS has grown to become the largest charity in the world dedicated to children in need and providing families and homes for orphaned and abandoned children. Founded by Austrian Hermann Gmeiner in the years following World War II, its original mission was to care for children whose families had been killed during the war. Today, SOS Children’s Villages International cares for more than 80,000 children who have become orphans for a variety of reasons. HIV/AIDS, drugs, natural disasters, civil war, or massive breaches of children’s rights, such as child trafficking, has made  the mission of SOS all the more important in the 21st century.

During the Anniversary Commemoration in June, Austrian Federal President Heinz Fischer and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger emphasized the significance of this humanitarian organization which originated in Austria. It has been nominated more than a dozen times for the Nobel Peace Prize and has received many awards.

Founding of the First SOS Children’s Village in Austria

As a child welfare worker in the mid 1940s Hermann Gmeiner witnessed the  isolation and suffering of countless war orphans living under appalling conditions in orphanages. This experience, coupled with the loss of his mother at an early age, provided the impetus for his vision of providing children with maternal care, homes and a community - all of which were crucial for healthy child development. With a few shillings in his pocket, (approximately $ 40), he established the first SOS Children’s Village Association in 1949, and the same year the foundation stone was laid for the first SOS Children’s Village in the town of Imst near Innsbruck.

On a hill above the small alpine town, the SOS Imst Village was created from small donations and the enthusiastic response of citizens who had personally suffered from the war-torn cities and devastating poverty. In the 1950s this single Village became the springboard for the development of a worldwide network of SOS Children’s Villages. Gmeiner served as the first Village Director in Imst and arranged for construction of other Villages in Austria as well as in other countries throughout Europe. In the following decades his life was inseparably linked with his commitment to a family-centered child-care concept based on the four pillars of a mother, a house, brothers and sisters, and a village. Gmeiner passed away in 1986 and is buried at the SOS Imst Village.

Beginning in 1953 and throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the idea spread quickly across Western Europe and  to other countries that have been ravaged by war. By the early 1970s and 1980s, SOS reached the Eastern Bloc. SOS Villages met many new challenges, including the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl which left many children suffering from radiation and other medical conditions, and again in 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet Union gave rise to alcoholism and poverty, leaving many children with inadequate care or no place to live. During the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, SOS Children’s Villages was one of the few organizations offering aid in the region. Today Europe is home to some 350 SOS facilities that include villages, social centers, kindergartens, vocational training centers, schools and a medical center.

Expansion into Asia, Africa and the Americas

When Gmeiner was in South Korea, a country that remained devastated a decade after the end of the Korean War, he was accompanying an SOS group, when a young boy who ran alongside reached into his pocket, pulled out a grain of rice and laid it in Gmeiner’s hand. This small gesture was the beginning of Gmeiner’s ‘Grain of Rice for Korea’ campaign. Millions of single grains of rice carrying the message, “a grain of rice for a dollar,” were sent to households across Europe and the U.S., generating funds for the construction of new SOS Villages. In India, Gmeiner met with Prime Minister Nehru, whose daughter, Indira Gandhi, founded India’s SOS association. Today India hosts the largest number of SOS Villages in the world (39), eight of which serve Tibetan children whose families fled Tibet. Natural disasters in Asia have spurred SOS Children’s Villages efforts to provide emergency relief. In 2005, SOS’s largest relief effort supplied help to Asia’s victims of the tsunami, building houses and supplying fishing boats.  Later in 2005, SOS responded to Pakistan’s earthquake which also left behind vulnerable children and women.

Social workers and church groups helping the poor brought Gmeiner’s philosophy of caring for children to South America (1965) and Central America (1970). In the 1990s, SOS Ecuador built day care centers for children of single mothers, enabling local mothers to work and help prevent the break-up of the family due to poverty.

The crumbling of the traditional family structure, along with high unemployment, provided the incentive for the SOS presence in Africa. In 1971 Hermann Gmeiner met a French priest and formed the first SOS Children’s Village in the Ivory Coast. In 1980 local village staff became aware that custom dictated that families in some areas abandon their tenth child who allegedly would bring bad luck, prompting SOS to build a second village. HIV/AIDS further destroyed families when sick and dying parents left those children without capable family members to fend for themselves. Working with local NGOs, SOS offers food and basic medical care, and engages local, impoverished women in income-generating activities. The SOS focus on strengthening families and offering a solid secondary education is epitomized in SOS  Ghana. And SOS Children’s Villages still continues to work in countries which have experienced decades of civil war - Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mozambique and Angola. In the years to come, Africa will remain the most important target area for SOS.

The impetus for SOS growth in the Middle East was the civil war in Lebanon. Additionally in the Palestinian Territories, SOS Villages provides a psycho-social mobile medical center for children and families traumatized by war. In Jordan, King Hussein and Queen Noor allowed the establishment of sixteen family houses, a home for retired SOS mothers, a computer lab and a supermarket.

SOS Villages in the U.S. and Canada provide a strong alternative to traditional foster care. In Florida and Illinois multiple families live together in a series of houses and support one another. A number of the townhouses in south Chicago allow biological parents to live on the ground floor while their children live on the first floor, all supported and mentored by a trained SOS mother.

Now in its 60th year, SOS currently has more than 500 Villages in 132 countries that provide children homes, security, food, clothing, vocational training and medical treatment. Professional SOS Mothers act as family members and mentors, helping orphans to shape their own futures. Four core principles of Gmeiner’s vision still guide SOS Villages everywhere: ‘Having a caring mother, siblings, a home and a supportive community  give a child a place to belong, where one feels safe and wanted. It is this very foundation that enables children to become successful adults.’

Additional information about the organization can be found at www.sos-usa.org