Beautiful, inspirational, determined and kind. The list of attributes that Despina Anastasiou embodies doesn’t stop there. A proud New Yorker, Despina is the ultimate inspiration for teenage girls and young women around the world, whether of Greek heritage or not.
17-year-old Despina’s dedication to community service and extraordinary leadership has been recognised and she has been appropriately honoured with the 2020 Future Woman of Distinction award.
Anastasiou was recognized alongside eight women leaders at Girl Scouts of Greater New York’s 28th annual Women of Distinction virtual weeklong event earlier in November this year. Each year, GSGNY holds the Women of Distinction event in celebration of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low’s birthday, celebrating female leaders who epitomise the wonderful Girl Scout values.
Despina also won the prestigious Miss Greek Independence Award 2020 at the annual competition held on March 8 at the Stathakion Cultural Center in Astoria.
GCT’s lifestyle writer Despina Karpathiou was able to sit down for a ‘virtual interview’ with Despina Anastasiou.
Firstly, thank you for taking the time to chat today Despina! Could you tell our readers a little about yourself?
Thank you for having me. My name is Despina Anastasiou and I am a senior at Dominican Academy High School in NYC however, I was just accepted into Colgate University where I will be studying International Relations in the fall.
How did you first get involved with the Greek Community and Greek philanthropic/political/social events in New York?
When both my parents immigrated to America they had two things in mind. One is to make sure their children had the best education possible and the other for them to stay connected to their Greek heritage. As I began my education at St. Catherine’s Greek American elementary school, I was instantly involved in the Greek community as I participated in plays, choirs and initially was introduced to my Orthodox faith and genealogy.
Living in Astoria, NY a prominent Greek town, I grew up with this thriving culture. Yet, when I entered a public Gifted and Talented school in the fifth grade, I didn’t want to lose this connection.
I continued to take part in events through GOYA – Greeks Orthodox Youth Association, while at the same time I educated myself on current events in Greece and the relations between America and Greece. I have gone to protests at the UN over the controversial name Macedonia and its usage and I have aimed to spread awareness on the ongoing refugee crisis.
You seem to be very passionate about Community Service and Leadership, what made you interested in helping others?
Being a Girl Scout for thirteen years is what truly ignited my passion for community service. Back then, I was excited to plant trees in parks, sing in nursing homes and repeat the Girl Scout Pledge which I was so proud to have memorized.
Yet as time progressed, I discovered that there is so much more to Girl Scouts than I had ever imagined. This one organization which I thought only existed in my local church was actually just one of the many troops that belong nationwide.
Each year, my confidence and voice enlarged and I slowly began to feel ready to share more with my community and the world around me. With this being my foundation, I have always wanted to put community service as my main priority and with each action, I took I loved seeing the impact an effective leadership could have. I was always drawn to both of these factors and they have become the ideals that I want to set my future on.
Tell our readers about your work with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, what is your role and what do you aim to achieve in this role?
I was recently accepted into the Youth Cabinet of Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney alongside other students in New York. Each month we gather virtually to discuss the pressing issues occurring in our country and internationally.
I have spoken out about the criminal justice system, the 2020 Presidential Election and policies that should be implemented in Mr Biden’s first 100 days in office. While I use each meeting to improve my public speaking skills and voice my opinions I mostly aim to become more knowledgeable and the best way to do so is by listening, especially when it’s listening to the youth.
We have so many ideas and I am grateful that the Congresswoman, Mrs Carolyn Maloney, recognizes that we are the future as she takes into consideration our ideas.
How did you feel when you found out that you won the 2020 Future Woman of Distinction Award?
At first, I was shocked because I wasn’t expecting the honour. However, I could not be more grateful for this opportunity and experience. Not only have I been able to share my story but I hope that with every interview and recognition that I have also inspired girls to take action with the hope of benefitting their community.
Additionally, by becoming the 2020 Future Woman of Distinction I have been able to meet and speak with such incredible role models such as Katie Couric, Lydia Fenet, Susie Gharib, Glenda McNeal and the list goes on. I have held onto every piece of advice they have shared with me and I am excited to make the most of this role.
Tell our readers about your initiative called “We Can All Dance” and your initial thoughts behind this amazing idea?
After fourteen years of dance, my studio closed. While looking at my studio and the world of dance as a whole, I realized that dance is not inclusive to all, so my new home should be a place that was.
Youth with special needs are often neglected and refused admission to most studios, so I searched for a way to be a part of this change. I took this as an opportunity to create my very own project called “We Can All Dance” where I was able to combine my passions of dance and international relations for the greater good.
I began by joining an organization called “Dancing Dreams”, a place where, every week, I get to teach kids with physical and mental disabilities the art of dance. In learning about each child’s ability, I create warmups, stretches, and dances that cater to them and show them how valuable this art can be for *everyone*.
Wanting to take this mission even further I hoped to give children in foreign countries the extra opportunity to be introduced to dance.
I advocated and collected 138 dance costumes to send to developing countries throughout Africa. The main goal was that even those with physical, mental or socioeconomic difficulties everyone deserves the equal chance to dance.
Amongst your many achievements, you have also crowned Miss Greek Independence in March of this year. How did you feel about your win and what are some motivational words you’d like to share with other girls your age?
As a little girl, I would attend the Greek Independence Day Parade each year and I would sit in admiration each time I saw the Miss Greek Independence of that year.
All the girls stood with such grace on the floats and they spoke so highly of their culture. I was proud to be Greek just watching them. I knew that when I became of age, I would want to follow in their footsteps and give it my all to become a role model for younger females.
At the pageant this year, I was asked why I wanted to become Miss Greek Independence and what I hoped to portray with this role and it was exactly that. I want to teach girls to be brave, not perfect like society has often engraved into us.
The heroines of 1821 such as Laskarina Bouboulina embodied this as they proved their strength to their male counterparts and fought for the causes they felt so passionately about and for their country that they loved unconditionally.
It is so important to go outside our comfort zone and not be afraid of failure because ultimately that is what holds us back when in reality we have so much potential as Greek females to share with the world.
New York has been hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, how has this impacted your life and those around you?
Covid-19 has affected everyone in one way or another. I have been doing remote schooling since March of last year and I haven’t been able to see my grandparents who live so close or travel like my family does annually.
However, knowing that so many have had it worse than I have during this time, I decided to react to help the most vulnerable, the elderly.
I created a non-profit organization called Epistles for the Elderly where I connect teenagers across the nation to write letters about themselves which I send to nursing homes across the country. We have sent over 2000 letters and continue to do so each day.
I have heard back from residents in different states who have received one of our letters and knowing that this simple action could influence a person’s day is the best feeling especially during a pandemic where seniors have not received enough attention and they are the most prone to the disease.
Have you ever visited Greece and what is your favourite Greek food?
I have! I have visited Greece every year since I was born with 2020 being the exception. My mother is from Athens and my father is from Xios so I spend half of my summer on the mainland and the other half on the island.
I adore my village, Kardamyla, in Xios and all my neighbours and friends who have truly become my second family from there.
For that reason, my favourite food is the handmade Herisia makaronia, a Xiotico specialty and you can never go wrong by ending the day with Loukoumades from Axni Kai Kanela in the city.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I absolutely love playing soccer. That may be because my father is obsessed with Panathinaikos and all the Greek soccer matches I was brought to from a young age.
But this year I was named Captain of my high school’s varsity soccer team and that was an incredible experience. As a leader, it helped me understand how soccer is so much more than just a game. In order to succeed as a team, a strong relationship between the players is crucial.
My goal for this season was to create a team culture and trust between the girls especially since we were in the middle of a pandemic and I am extremely proud that we were able to accomplish this.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
In five years I will have graduated college and will be starting law school.
I want to focus on international law with the hope of creating better relations between America and Greece.
Although I’m not sure in what way that will be, I will forever advocate on behalf of my country and be proud to share my strong Greek roots.