Hermann Gmeiner died on 26 April 1986 at the age of 66 in Innsbruck, Austria. For almost four decades of his life, he had dedicated all of his strength to neglected, orphaned and abused children. Thanks to Gmeiner’s vision of a child-friendly society, since the founding of SOS Children’s Villages tens of thousands of children have grown up in a secure family environment, and tens of thousands of families in crisis have found support.
Paying attention to the needs and rights of children
Hermann Gmeiner with Tibetan children from Dharamsala - Photo: Alexander Gabriel
Long before the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Hermann Gmeiner believed that every child was a full member of society and that his or her special needs must be respected. For him, the way children grow up determines how our society functions together. Gmeiner was convinced that a loving, supportive manner of raising children was the basic prerequisite for peaceful coexistence.
This deep conviction resulted from his own experiences - the early death of his mother and the horrors of World War II. And then there were the many uprooted children of the postwar era and the orphanages and children’s homes that were run on the principle of “order and discipline”.
Still today, children who are not able to grow up with their biological family are exposed to many risks and their rights are diminished. Gmeiner concentrated all of his attention on these children and the fight against exploitation, violence, hunger and impoverishment, because “all the children of the world are our children”. This is the responsibility that SOS Children’s Villages has met in the past, and still meets today.
Accept every child for who they are
Hermann Gmeiner with children from Poá, Brazil - Photo: Alexander Gabriel
Gmeiner’s model of the SOS Children’s Village addressed the longing of every human being for an intact family. And he inspired people with his desire to provide a new home for disadvantaged children. Millions of donors provide the foundation for the global work of SOS Children’s Villages, which Albert Schweitzer called “the most gracious miracle of the postwar period”.
Even though the understanding of pedagogy and social work, the programme contents, social conditions and needs are constantly changing and modifications become necessary, the mission of SOS Children’s Villages – Gmeiner’s legacy – remains the same: accept every child simply because he or she exists, not because he or she is one way or the other.
Gmeiner’s ideas: prophetic and modern
Gmeiner spoke a language whose simplicity revealed deep insight. In the final analysis, he wanted to save the world by saving its children. Much of his thought still remains prophetic and modern today: his critique of technology, his worry about boundless materialism and the dehumanisation of mankind, his striving for peaceful coexistence among those with different religious and political convictions, his recognition of the value of children.
Hermann Gmeiner and his views on what children need above all have not been forgotten. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of German unity in 2010, German Federal President Christian Wulff quoted Gmeiner:
“Many who were able to move on to a good future, despite adversity, thank those people who helped them at decisive moments in their lives – who simply helped. I too had teachers and neighbours who helped me when my mother fell ill - they simply helped. Hermann Gmeiner, the father of the SOS Children’s Villages, expressed it this way: ‘Everything great in the world only happens because someone does more than he has to’.”