My group consisted of 8 University of Minnesota students who signed up to Teach English in Crete to young school children. Due to the Greece's economic situation, and the various austerity measures, the teachers were on strike. For this reason our group withheld from teaching English as volunteers (which would promote resentment of paid teachers) and instead paved the road for Global Volunteer interaction with the St. Spiro's center for mentally challenged (whom are far from disabled).
Perhaps Global Volunteers foresaw this issue (of striking teachers) before we had departed, but we were not informed until we had arrived. My guess is that they were hoping for the best, as we were told our first day of a pending decision to help out at St. Spiro's. It was my understanding that this center had been seeking volunteers for some time. These requests were not met due to some uncertainty from Global Volunteers, but quickly faded after the successes of our group, indicated by several missions after this.
At St. Spiro's we worked on arts and crafts with these members, played activities such as basketball, danced, observed them instruct young students from a nearby school on driving practices, and helped them practice for a parade. What we were observing and helping to develop, was a greater sense of the abilities of mentally challenged individuals rather than their disabilities. Below I have provided a link to a review written in June 2011 in "The Coastal Journal" in which our team leader, Sam, is mentioned discussing some of these issues.
One thing that I noticed while working with this center was the strong sense of community. An unfortunate incident occurred where one of the members of this center hit another member. When this happened many of the others consoled the abused member, and shunned the abuser. It shouldn't at all be remarkable to me that they stand up for each other, and protect each other. Again, they are far from disabled.
To say more about the rest of my experience, besides it having been too short, it was wonderful. We arrived out of tourist season and so the beaches were mostly barren and strewn with debris that washed up from the ocean. Within days though people were out and about, working diligently to clean up for Summer tourist season. It was nice to see an alternative aspect of Crete that a real tourist wouldn't see, to see Crete in another light.
We stayed with at a family-run hotel (Hotel Handakas) in Gazi. My only regret here is that I was unable to speak with them about their experiences. But this didn't prevent us from interacting. For instance, one afternoon we all came down to the pool area to bask in the Mediterranean sun (note that inside it can be quite chilly, but outside the sun burns). When we asked to use the sun-chairs they immediately set about washing them off for us, after they had been stored for the winter. And so, we helped. Our group and this family set up a sort of assembly line. It may seem like a trivial incident, but it's little things like this that demonstrate the extent that our hosts will go to accomodate us.
I shouldn't say too much more, so I will end with these words: the food is amazing, the people are great, don't be afraid of the dogs, don't count the shrines at the edge of road to St. Spiro's (and don't ask what they're for), and try a local orange if you can-they're amazing.