Elias Manolis Gives Thanks and Gives Back – Especially for Thanksgiving
January 24, 2022
Almost all Diaspora families have humble origins. Some people don’t merely remember and celebrate, however. They express their gratitude to the countries that offered opportunity to immigrant forebears and pride in their families’ homelands by giving back. The members of the Manolis family in Massachusetts offer their thanks symbolically and pragmatically – they honor Thanksgiving by literally providing thousands of people with holiday meals each year.
Elias Manolis is involved in other philanthropic endeavors, including The Hellenic Initiative, but he goes all in Thanksgiving season, sharing the fruits of a spirit cultivated by his parents and grandparents.
Eventually settling in Lowell, Massachusetts, Elias’ Pappou Efthymios joined many thousands of Greek immigrants working in factories. At the age of 16 his father Nicholas started working at a restaurant, the Dracut House of Pizza, and when he was 18 the family bought the establishment.
Success followed, but it was wrapped in ‘philotimo’ – the Greek word for ‘do the right thing.’
“My dad came to America when he was seven years old and they were very poor. A lot of the time when he was on the school lunch line, he didn’t have any money to buy food for himself. That was tough on him.” But the American dream was good to the family. After beginning in a strip mall with a couple of tables they bought a two-family house across the street from their home and converted that into what the restaurant is today.
“After doing that in the early 90s, my father thought to himself, ‘God has given our family a lot. He’s blessed us; we are successful. It’s time to give back.’ And because food insecurity was an issue near and dear to him – he experienced it and knew what it was like – his primary mission was to help combat that.”
The first year the project involved just Elias’ father and his mom. “They said, ‘let’s go buy some Turkeys and cook Thanksgiving dinners, and we’ll deliver them to needy people we know.’ Fast forward to last year: We created a 501(c)3 foundation and last year, even with COVID and supply chain issues, we ended up feeding over 10,000 people for Thanksgiving.”
Of course, at that level, it could no longer be just a family affair. “We reach out to a lot of local organizations like the GOYA and other groups from church, the Sons of Pericles. We can do it with fewer people, but we like to get more people involved in the Community and other churches,” he said. Like true Community leaders, his family understands that “it makes people feel good, doing all this stuff at Thanksgiving.”
He is active with The Hellenic Initiative and is also a member of the National Hellenic Society, and he spotlighted its Chairman, Drake Behrakis, who is also active with THI. “He is the best,” said Elias, who also serves on the boards of hospitals and schools in his immediate area.
Elias learned by example. “My father never directly said, ‘hey, you’re supposed to give back.’ It was his aura, his always wanting to give back.” His father’s mother Paraskevi, who died at a young age, was full of life and love. That too rubbed off on Elias. “She would always say to my father in Greek ‘if you give with one hand, God will give back to you with two hands.’ That stuck with him and is with him today.”
There were many examples to learn from. “I look back and I recall that whenever a little baseball team came into the restaurant asking for a sponsorship, or any other organization, I never remember my dad saying ‘no’ – to helping somebody, helping the community, our churches.”
He would ask his dad as a teenager why he did that, and the response was ‘your Yiayia taught me this, and that’s it.”
Elias’ mother Stavroula offers much more than moral support for the Thanksgiving endeavor. “There’s a lot of logistical work – we reach out to different agencies and organizations and she is basically the brains behind everything and the glue holding us all together.”
He is also very concerned with what the future holds for the future of Hellenism and the younger generations, saying “in terms of maintaining traditions, Church, etc. I know how easily people can lose those traditions. It’s easy for people to start watering down our traditions, and if we do that now, what is it going to look like in 10 years? So any organization I can be involved with to make a difference, I’m right there.”
There are many ways to give back, but THI attracted Elias strongly. He said that when he first learned about THI, “it was explained to me very simply: “THI is helping Greece.’” He added that, “it was a time when Greece was struggling – with defaults, the economy – and I said to myself ‘I need to get involved.” I didn’t want to only help Greeks in the United States. We need to look at the motherland. I thought, ‘we need to help and make sure they can get through all this.’”
“I was at the Gala a few years back, and just to hear some of the speakers talk about what THI did with the wildfires – including Peter Diamandis’ XPRIZE Foundation and his high tech ideas for preventing and fighting them – was fantastic. It was truly amazing to see the dedication that Greek-Americans have to our homeland. It was great to see.”
He also likes the fact that THI is a way for Diaspora Hellenes and Philhellenes to offer their experience and expertise to Greece through programs like the new Project Connect the Dots virtual mentoring program, in which Elias in would like to participate in the future.