Penny Panayiota Deligiannis

Internationally Known Humanitarian Deligiannis Named Waubonsee “Fab 40”

Penny Panayiota Deligiannis, seen here in downtown Chicago, is an internationally known humanitarian who has saved and improved thousands of lives through her compassionate work. Waubonsee Community College is proud to honor her as one of the college’s “Fabulous 40” alumni.
Sugar Grove — The fabric of society is held together by the combined small acts of everyday people working to make the world a better place. However, there are a handful of selfless, dynamic men and women who devote their lives to enacting significant global, regional and local change. Penny Panayiota Deligiannis is one of those rare individuals who can look at her incredible humanitarian accomplishments and see the tangible positive effect on literally thousands of lives around the globe. Waubonsee Community College is proud to honor her as one of the college’s “Fabulous 40” alumni.

As part of the college’s yearlong 40th anniversary celebration, Waubonsee is honoring 40 alumni and students who embody the mission, vision and values of the college. These individuals represent the diversity of Waubonsee’s students and the college district, as well as the diversity of the college’s mission as a comprehensive community college.

Born and raised in Aurora, Deligiannis’ Greek immigrant parents instilled a love of learning in their children and a curiosity about the world. Greek was the dominant language in their household, and Deligiannis would embrace both American and Greek cultures. Her family would return often to their hometown of Kandyla, Greece, which is located on the Peloponnesus. Her world traveling-ways would be a mainstay in her future career.

A graduate of East Aurora High School, Deligiannis knew she wanted to go to college, but she didn’t initially know what she wanted to study or how to navigate the college admissions process. Neither one of her parents attended college, even though her mother had been recognized as a top student in Greece. Deligiannis says she is glad she chose to start her college career at Waubonsee.

“Everything worked out beautifully,” she said. “With the personal attention I received, choosing Waubonsee ended up being such a wise decision.”

Deligiannis was the prototypical involved student while at Waubonsee. She jumped into a myriad of student activities that included becoming president of the Student Senate and Waubonsee’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa — the national honor society of two-year colleges, competing on the Model Illinois Government team and even joining the Steel Drum Band.

“There was so much going on,” she said. “It was a warm, exciting, fun experience.”

Beyond her extracurricular activities, Deligiannis also received recognition for her academic strengths, earning the Marie Von Ohlen Scholarship and the President’s Achievement Award.

“Being the daughter of immigrants, I didn’t take going to college lightly,” she said. “I inherently felt more driven. I was cognizant of the fact that you don’t get another shot. I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity.”

Along with the support she received at home from her parents, Deligiannis also found guidance in the classroom at Waubonsee.

“I can’t say enough about the faculty,” she said. “I was so well prepared by them.”

After graduating from Waubonsee with academic honors, earning an associate degree in history and another in music, Deligiannis transferred to the University of Illinois where she would earn a bachelor’s degree in speech communication — again with honors.

“Waubonsee made the transfer simple for me,” she said. “I had two intense years at Waubonsee and another two intense years at the University of Illinois.”

Deligiannis went from her undergraduate work directly into the University of Illinois’ master’s program in organizational communication, which she completed in 1992. She immediately put to good use her new degree and accumulated knowledge with a move to Florida to start an aid program through the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, which provided funding to various international humanitarian projects. In three years, she built a network of more than 500 partners in the United States, Canada and the Bahamas, raising $250,000.

During this time and when she was still in graduate school, Deligiannis was also taking trips to east Africa to work on international development projects. It was here she met her mentor, His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana and All Albania. She would return to Africa, completing humanitarian projects in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Archbishop Anastasios eventually asked Deligiannis if she would take on a larger-scale project in Albania, closer to her ancestral homeland of Greece, working with the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania.

At this time, in the early and mid-1990s, Albania was a country still in the midst of transitioning from its decades-long communist rule to an open, democratic society. Deligiannis would serve a population that was 70 percent Muslim in a language she didn’t speak. Regardless, she decided to accept the challenge on the condition that when the organization was stable, she would be able to hand off her duties to an Albanian. Seven years later, and after overcoming numerous crises, her condition was met.

The intervening years pushed Deligiannis to draw from every ounce of her inner strength to build a successful humanitarian organization. She began her work in Albania in the capitol city of Tirana in the Orthodox Church’s office of publications. All religions were essentially outlawed during the communist era, and Deligiannis went to work reproducing the destroyed Church literature and hymnbooks. She also coordinated the production, printing and distribution of a monthly national newspaper, sponsored by the Church.

“We didn’t have a lot of funding in the beginning,” she said. “I had to learn to not waste anything. It makes you very effective.”

Deligiannis’ tenacity and resourcefulness did not go unnoticed, and in 1995 she was asked to take over as director of the humanitarian arm of the Orthodox Church in Albania, called Diaconia Agapes, which translates to “service of love.” Here, she was able to enact more substantive change in the lives of her constituents. She coordinated the Church’s agricultural and educational programs, including preschools, health clinics and farm loan programs. She enjoyed being able to work with people again to improve lives.

“They’re the best projects,” she said. “When you make positive space and create opportunities to learn, miracles happen.”

Things in Albania seemed to be improving. Although the local economy wasn’t very strong, it was bolstered by the Albanian Diaspora, many who left after the fall of communism to find work in neighboring countries and sent money home. Unfortunately, much of this hard-earned money was being invested within Albania into various pyramid schemes that would collapse in 1997, sending the country into chaos and anarchy. Military armories were raided by informal militias, and within a week, more than a million weapons were spread throughout the country.

“People from the villages were stacking their donkeys with Kalashnikovs (assault rifles) and ammunition,” Deligiannis said.

Nearly all of the international community fled the country in the midst of fighting and mass looting that took the lives of more than 3,000 Albanians. This proved to be a defining moment for Deligiannis, as she decided to stay and help stem the tide of anarchy. She led her staff to immediately shift their focus from developmental programs to full-scale emergency relief, including food and clothing distribution. They would feed more than 15,000 during the crisis.

After the civil crisis abated, Deligiannis and her staff continued their core developmental programs through Diaconia Agapes, including vital clean water projects. However, the need for emergency relief would soon return as the vast humanitarian crisis in neighboring Kosovo would, in just six weeks, flood the country with nearly a half-million refugees, many of whom were injured and severely traumatized from seeing their loved ones massacred.

Deligiannis showed the courage and diplomatic skill to represent the Republic of Albania at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland, and request emergency funding from the organization’s Action by Churches Together (ACT) program. After receiving ACT’s largest grant ever of nearly $8.5 million, Deligiannis increased the Diaconia Agapes’ staff from 14 to 87 and established the largest refugee collection center in Albania, caring for more than 1,300 Kosovo Muslims daily for the next two years. Under Deligiannis’ leadership, Diaconia Agapes delivered food, clothing and basic hygiene supplies to more than 18,000 Kosovars and Albanian host families, including 220 tons of ready-to-eat food in 10 cities. Knowing that permanent solutions were preferable to short-time options, Deligiannis and her staff also arranged for prefabricated homes to be built for more than 4,000 refugees. With her commitment to education, Deligiannis also made sure the younger refugees had access to education. This priority would continue long after the immediate crisis was diminished.

As a thank-you to the Albanian people for their support to the refugees, Diaconia Agapes used extra funding to renovate and rebuild 12 Albanian schools. Where there were once barely functional, dilapidated schools, now stood brightly colored, well-equipped learning spaces. In 2001, Deligiannis saw her earlier mandate met as she left the organization in capable Albanian hands, realizing her goal of local control.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” she said. “I’m still trying to find ways to help society.”

Although she is the definition of modest, her impact on the world has been recognized with awards from the American Association of Community Colleges and the University of Illinois Young Alumni Association. Since 2001, she has continued her humanitarian efforts around the globe, working to make the world a better place. She has worked on projects in southeast Asia, including helping with the relief efforts following the December 2004 tsunami. She is also a sought-after speaker and advocate for the ongoing efforts to improve life for everyday people in the Balkans. She is senior consultant for international development for the World Council of Hellenes and Hellenicare, helping to raise critical funding for international humanitarian and relief projects.