By Mary Sinanidis
The sudden closure of Greek Storytime sessions at Richmond Library caught City of Yarra Councillor Michael Glynatsis off guard. In response, he expressed gratitude to The Greek Herald for alerting him to the issue and welcomed parents supporting a current change.org petition to reach out to him with the aim of preserving the beloved program as per our newspaper’s request.
“Things can change,” the Greek-Australian Councillor said, pointing to his own history of successful community advocacy. His own experiences include a successful nine-year battle to keep a laneway open, as well as a commitment to preserving cultural heritage.
As owner of the Aegean Greek Restaurant in Fitzroy for four decades, Mr Glynatsis underscored his support for Greek cuisine and language. He shared that even his nearly-four-year-old granddaughter speaks the language. “We value learning the language of our heritage,” he highlighted.
The City of Yarra’s Annual Report reveals a diverse community, with 29% of residents born overseas and 20% speaking languages other than English, including Greek listed among the most popular. “I embrace multiculturalism,” the Councillor said, fresh from a visit to a Greek-Australian seniors club, “something the Vietnamese also have,” he added, emphasising the importance of fostering community connections.
Greek community teacher Vicky Petala, who led the popular program, described the impact on families, noting that it went beyond language learning to create a sense of community. She points to low running costs, just the price of a teacher and a few art supplies, far outweighing the linguistic and social impact for participating children and the community.
They would sing together, and even non-Greek speakers would join. Youngsters who came regularly would learn language and parents – through their children – would renew their own familiarity with their language,” Ms Petala told The Greek Herald while stating that the Wednesday morning program sometimes gathered more than 20 children.
“It wasn’t just about language. We had built a lovely group of regulars who would come together and foster connections.”.
Over the summer break, the library informed Ms Petalas of the program’s cancellation due to funding constraints. Despite scrapping the program, the library said the area would still be available for parents to use – but without the language learning.
Ms Petala first started teaching the program in 2021 after it had been shut down during COVID. She had been encouraged by language activist Vasso Zangalis to sign up for it.
Ms Zangalis and Evie Diamantis had pushed for Greek Storytime after long drives to Oakleigh Library for their weekly children’s sessions. The Oakleigh program was bursting at the seams so the mothers thought, “We can bring this to us.” A strategy formed during their long drives.
Soon, Greek Storytime began to sprout at local neighbourhoods, supported by the Greek Community of Melbourne and Victoria Education.
In an April 2023 petition which gathered 116 signatures, Ms Diamantis showcased the benefits of Greek Storytime sessions, “It is important to remember that countless studies have shown that people who speak more than one language are better problem solvers, have less of a chance at developing dementia in old age and overall make better global citizens.”
Maria Tsakakis, the mother and educator who started the fresh petition to save the Wednesday morning program at Richmond Library, was devastated upon learning of the closure. “The children sing, create friendships, and learn language in a fun way. It’s a way for us to stay connected. We don’t want to lose our language,” she told The Greek Herald, urging people to sign the petition that has garnered over 180 signatures. “It promotes literacy, fosters love for learning and is a valuable cultural resource.”
On Fridays, Ms Tsakakis runs a similar program at Glenroy Library and has seen its benefits first-hand as both mother and educator. The Glenroy program is funded for one day a month by State Government, and the cost of the rest of the sessions are covered by PRONIA.
Former Whittlesea mayor and current Chairperson of the Whittlesea Multicultural Community Council, Kris Pavlidis also reiterated the importance of language preservation in a multicultural program. Her interactive bilingual sessions at Lalor Library have been a huge success, spanning to include Lalor North Primary School students and parents and even the church playgroup. “The fun, music and dancing attracted other cultural groups and that was one of its highlights,” she said, adding that she is now looking at ways to invigorate the program with pop-up themed sessions and special guests.
“It is critical that we preserve our Hellenic heritage, and the maintenance of language is a key factor for this. Just as importantly we have to accept that we can’t operate in a silo given our multicultural society, and there are significant benefits to be had in cross-cultural sharing and learning, the development of children’s self-identity, and overall community of wellbeing.”
While Cr Glynatsis was initially unaware of the program’s closure, he welcomed The Greek Herald’s initiative of connecting with concerned parents to help save Greek Storytime. The community remains hopeful for a resolution to preserve this valuable cultural and educational resource.
To support the petition go to: www.change.org/p/preserve-the-greek-story-time-program-at-richmond-library