Diane Kounalakis. The First Woman President of Pancretan Association of America

Interview: Despoina Fronimopoulou

Ms. Diane Kounalakis was born and raised in the vibrant city of San Francisco, a place she always called home. Her family’s journey to San Francisco began in 1954 when her parents, hailing from the picturesque Crete, embarked on a quest for new opportunities in the United States. Her father, originally from Vryses, Apokorounou, and her mother, from Chania, brought their dreams and determination to the Golden State.

Family has always been a cornerstone of Ms. Kounalakis’  life. She has a brother who also resides in San Francisco, and she’s been happily married for 33 years. Together, they’ve raised two remarkable children, Antonios, aged 28, and Victoria, aged 26, who have chosen to stay in California.

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Diane Kounalakis with her husband Jeffrey Baxter 

Her pursuit of knowledge and her dedication to education shine brightly in her impressive academic background. She holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in communication studies, with a specialization in public relations. Her passion for communication led her to a remarkable 14-year career with the San Francisco Ballet, where she played a pivotal role as a Public Relations professional.

In her retirement years, Ms. Kounalakis’ passion for PR didn’t wane; instead, she transitioned into a fulfilling role as a PR Consultant. Notably, she has worked with numerous “green” companies, a field that fascinates her and reflects her commitment to environmental sustainability.

Beyond her professional life, she dedicates her time to meaningful volunteer work. Her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease left a profound impact on her, driving her to volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Association, providing support and awareness for this challenging condition. Additionally, her dedication to philanthropy extends to over 45 years of service to the Pancretan charity.

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Away from her professional life, Ms. Kounalakis is an avid traveler with a particular affection for her ancestral roots. Over the past two decades, she and her family have been on a quest to explore the entirety of Greece, beyond her hometown of Chania.

Their wanderlust has led them to the enchanting Greek islands of the Cyclades, including Andros, Santorini, Mykonos, Hydra, as well as farther destinations like Rhodes, Lemnos, and more. She revels in immersing herself in the local culture and experiencing the daily lives of the people she encounters on her travels.

Her affinity for Crete remains steadfast. Her frequent visits to the island she cherishes are a testament to her deep connection with its people and culture. She finds herself continually captivated by the diversity of Crete, which remains full of hidden gems to discover.

Her special bond with her hometown is a source of profound gratitude. She treasures her connection to Crete, a place steeped in history, boasting a climate that strikingly mirrors that of her beloved California.

Ms.  Kounalakis’  parents, who served as role models, imparted a vital lesson: “If you want to affect change, you have to take a leadership role”. Her father, a WWII veteran, and her mother, a champion of democracy, inspired a lifelong commitment to making the world better.

From a young age, she embraced their values, actively volunteering with the Pancretan Association of America. At the age of 61, she remains passionate about this work. After serving as VP of Communications on the National Board, she took the bold step of running for the presidency.

Now, she holds the distinction of being the first woman president in the Association’s 94-year history, proving the power of determination in breaking boundaries and serving as a role model for all.

Diane Kounalakis views her role as a solemn duty to Crete and its inhabitants. The Pancretan Association of America (PAA), comprising 3,500 members, has been extending support to Cretans and spreading the rich history of this island for nearly a century.

Even during the tumultuous 1940s, the PAA undertook a fundraising endeavor to aid young brides traveling to the USA to start anew. In the 1950s, education became a paramount focus, fostering connections with universities in the United States and those in Crete, particularly in their nascent stages, offering substantial financial aid, particularly in the form of academic books.

Additionally, the PAA has provided medical containers to hospitals and citizens across Greece in response to catastrophic natural disasters like fires, earthquakes, and floods. The PAA continually conceives and executes meaningful projects, such as a recent fundraiser for a boys’ orphanage in Chania.

Regardless of a project’s scale, its impact on the Cretan people remains paramount. The organization endeavors to alleviate the traumas inflicted by crises in Greece, be they political or economic, by offering various forms of support as needed.

Another facet of the PAA’s work lies in the promotion of Crete as a compelling destination for all. In a project orchestrated by the PPA, hundreds of American-Cretans, many of them third or fourth generation, visited Crete for the first-time last year.

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The association places significant emphasis on creating a “safe place” for all Cretans in the USA, facilitating their connection to their hometown and fostering a deeper understanding of its history and cultural heritage.

Such initiatives have a tangible economic impact on Crete, as they bring tourists back to the island, particularly those with ancestral roots there, injecting vitality into the local economy while showcasing a captivating way of life.

As a non-profit organization, the PAA remains politically neutral in Greek affairs, but it maintains valuable relationships with key figures in Greece, particularly in Crete, who provide support in organizing events and logistics. There is also an ongoing plan to collaborate with other Greek-related NGOs in the USA, aiming to amplify their impact on Greece’s current situation.

When asked about her primary goal as the current President of the PAA, Ms. Kounalakis underscores the importance of every item on her agenda. Infrastructure-wise, the PAA  will be relocated to the capital of the USA, Washington, D.C., with dedicated facilities for archiving years of historical records. Annual scholarships and cultural programs will persist, as will the National Conventions held in various states.

However, her central focus is on enhancing the visibility of the PAA’s work. While the KPHTH magazine has been published, there remains a wealth of untold stories and impactful endeavors by the PAA, known to few both in the USA and Greece.

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Leveraging the power of social media and personal relations is an avenue for change, benefiting not only the PAA but also Crete and its inhabitants. Her goal lies in more effectively communicating their narrative, as the saying goes, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and it may not do justice to the truth”.

The photos are from Ms. Kounalakis’ personal archives.

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