“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
This is what, at the beginning of 1900, the Scottish writer James Matthew Barrie wrote, in his tales about ‘Peter Pan’.
Today, for the rubric “The Protagonists” we interview an historical partner, and friend, of the Social Change School, who perfectly embodies these words, and who represents a bit all the dreams of Barrie’s characters: we are talking about Gian Paolo Montini, General Director of the Association Peter Pan Onlus, an organisation that takes care of giving shelter and support to the families of ill kids and teenagers.
Let’s meet him:
Q.: Let’s discover who Gian Paolo Montini is: from an Aeronautical Engineer to General Director of the Association Peter Pan Onlus. Those would look as these two paths as completely opposite…
A.: If I have to think about what I had in mind, my dreams and desires, 30-40 years ago, being here in Peter Pan was not one of them, in the social cooperation, in the NGOs like now.
When I was young, I was always fascinated by planes, motorcycles, sports, but above all by technology, what we can do and create with it, technology as a tool for strengthening human, creative and solidarity capacities, as I had then the chance to discover.
My interest made me to be an electronic ‘professional’, a specialised worker, the TV technician who repaired. As soon as I graduated from a professional Institute, I started to do night shifts in SIP, and at the same time I started Engineering. I followed the path of aeronautical engineering with a thesis in Aerospace. After the degree, I specialised in telecommunications. Then, I entered SIP, it was then I worked at Telecom Italia and in the United States: an amazing experience, I fell in love with the country, where I was warmly welcomed, and where I truly found new relatives, sisters and brothers.
I then came back to Italy, when my first daughter was born. In me, a new desire started to rise, from the other path that I had always followed in a parallel life.
Q.: However, you had another desire since you were 20 years old…
A: Yes, you know…when I was 9 years old, a drunk man violently hit us on Corso Francia, my Mom died, my brother and I, we both had broken legs, we were at the hospital for a very long time, with risk of gangrene. As an adolescent, I had some problems, clearly, even though I had an exceptional father, some worries still lingered. After a difficult adolescence, which was difficult for me as well as everyone, that brought me to discover the world of solidarity and a path of faith.
When I was 20, I joined a parish group, during that time a girl took me with her: she wanted to enter the houses of the Caritas, for the minors waiting for trail, for a first crime committed or for other difficult situations. She did not remain, I did.
Since that day, I spent every weekend as a volunteer in the welcome center, and I discovered a different world; at the same time, I found out that I liked to be there. Since I was spending my weekends there, my relationship with the girl ended up (laugther)…
Since then, I collaborated also for the creation of the Banca dati della Federazione Italiana del Volontariato, I could go around the whole 3rd sector in LAZIO, and I met cooperatives, associations, and my eyes opened. Moreover, I worked as catechist for young people and children. I have always been in that scope.
I fell in love with the neighbour, I can say that without shame….I am so in love of the neighbour; this is something I have inside me. I am happy to stay with others!”
Q: Since when, did you define this path, why did it become prevalent in your life?
A: When I was 40, I agreed with my wife, when she saw this internal push in me, this desire of unifying my managerial and professional characteristics with the heart tied to this parallel life. I wanted to help the neighbour, I wanted to do something especially for the minors, for the children and their families. Finally, the doors opened, after years of tension, research, the solution came, a scenery appeared, and I only had to choose by saying yes or not. I said yes, I quitted Telecom, and I found myself in Peter Pan as a General Director.
Q: Gian Paolo, you are not the first one of our Protagonists (NdR.: see interview to Moschochoritis) who was born as an engineer and ends up with a life and career in the solidarity. When faced with difficulties and challenges in the Non Profit, what role does rationality and method play?
A.:Being an engineer, gives you an understanding of how things work in the detail, and also in general. Therefore, setting objectives, reaching them and understanding the impacts on the environment we act in. This is the characteristic of the synthesis and overall vision of things.
Q.: Could you present the Peter Pan association to us and its identity?
A.: The Peter Pan association was born thanks to the moms of sick children; it was born from the need of those who it concerned. Especially by two moms, who went through the terrible experience of losing their own children because of an illness. When they met, they also met other parents, they decided to create an association with the aim to support families with children sick who have cancer, to give them shelter in a structure. From that idea, Peter Pan was born in 1994.
From 1994 to 1997, on top of the fundraising and volunteering, they looked for the structure. They first created a group home of Peter Pan in 1997, when the work started, ended in 2020 with the inauguration. The hospitality started in 2000. Now there are two more structures: the ‘Seconda Stella’ and the ‘Stellina’, all of the three are close, always in Rome, in Trastevere, close to the Paediatric Hospital ‘Bambino Gesù’.
Q.: Let’s take stock on some words that characterise it. Let’s start with ‘respect’
A.:. Respect moves on two levels. The first one is one of freedom: whatever thing I think about you, I always have to consider your freedom of choice. Living together however, does not mean that everyone should act like they want. The second level relates to the freedom of thought and culture: there is respect for what you believe in. finding the communion with habits, religions and different lifestyles. From us, for example, in the same kitchen, a major place of sharing, live the Christians, Muslims and Jews. You see soon that communion and sharing, produces peace. Harmony is not spontaneous, it has to be helped: factors that generates edginess cause a lot of stress, pain and desperation…
D.: The second world-symbol: ‘hospitality’. The association Peter Pan, literally ‘welcomes’ entire families in their houses.
A: The pulsating hearth of the hospitality and the taking care of the other. taking care means that every detail has to be cured. The criteria of hospitality is that not only do I give you shelter, but I also give you the keys, you enter and there is a bed: I host you and take care of your necessities. This means to pay attention and put you at the centre of it: “you are now the most important person to me here, you and your very difficult battle, the ones your children are fighting and facing in the hospital. I you to know that the remaining is not a problem for you”- from the point of view of the children, love heals, therapy works better if you are better. Kids of families hosted by peter pan, spend from 75% of their time at home and not in the hospital: this means that kids spend more time with their families and that they are more happy, and the hospital beds are available to take care of other children,
Q.: And finally, empathy. One of the main dower required as being a part of the “Peter Pan Association”. How would you exactly define it?
A: Empathy is one of the basic characteristics for working in the non-profit. At the end, empathy does 50% of the work. The other 50% is done by everyone’s professional and managerial capacities, but empathy gives you, in the third sector, that creative push and at the same time, the strength to get through the problems, by not surrendering or looking for other solutions.
Q.: How do you face the illness of children? And how do the family of that child face it?
A: At peter pan, we always say that “we do not give days to life, science deals with that, and naturally God. We try to add life to every day”.
We say that to those going through difficult moments: focus on the moment. Also in the dialogue with children, the beauty of being there, allowing them to smile, has an absolute value.
You never do something being sure that you will save, you do something being sure that you are helping now. The importante of life is now.
Q.: Which have been the moments of major difficulty you met until now?
A.: My most difficult moment were always and only related to the relationships. The technical problems never scared me and the experience, taught me that they’ve always been solved. I know that if we commit, together with the others, we can always go through difficult moments. We cannot go through relations however, because a relationship is made of 2 people: the other and me. When you cannot mend, it always is a sprain, a wound. I am always in love with the neighbour and when there is a separation, it’s not pleasant, at the end I don’t feel well… this is what doesn’t make me sleep at night…
Q.: An episode that you remember in a particular way?
A..: A moment that I carry in my heart is when, a girl who stayed in Peter Pan for 3 years, arrived to 10 months, she started to walk in Peter Pan house…You know, me, as a director, I have always seen myself with that role, I’m not the one who plays often with kids, but this girl, she gave me a moment of great joy when, whilst I was talking in my office with someone, she arrived, opened the door, she was 3 years old, she entered and gave me a hug..She wanted me to hold her. I was a great joy. This girl died after 10 days, I saw it as a love goodbye from her. This hug is now rooted in my heart. I see it as a moment of joy, because she said goodbye not just to me, but to all the people she loved…
Q.: In Peter Pan you use names of the characters of Barrie’s stories: you have ‘Wendy’, ‘Tinker Bell’ , and ‘Mr. Smee’ … who is your Captain Hook?
A.: Captain Hook is the illness! It’s the bad guy who can be defeated, considering that now, 75% of our little patients can be cured, compared to 25% of 20 years ago. Captain Hook, as in the romances, is the fear of growing up,, is the fear of illness, of the future.
Q.: Have you ever had enemies? People, ideas, preconcepts, maybe also parts of yourself…
My biggest enemy is myself, because I am constantly dissatisfied of myself. I am never happy with anything, I am never still, it is something excessive and it doesn’t help my serenity. However, I think that if you don’t take risks in your life, as a group, person, you cannot change that life. I would have never found out beautiful things about me and others if I did not leave the for profit world, and if I did not take the risk of following that path. Being too perfectionist doesn’t allow you to be happy and to be innovative; before all the choice of marrying my wife Chiara, and the arrive of two beautiful daughters: Giulia and Gaia.
Q.: Gian Paolo, what is needed for working in an Association like ‘Peter Pan’? And what has to be absolutely avoided?
A.: A thing to avoid in Peter Pan, is thinking to have the solutions and being the best. You need to be confident in yourself but not full of yourself. A person who is confident, listens, someone who is too sure of him/herself does not need to prevail on the other, but someone who has self-confidence gives other people priority, and does not have difficulties to play with a kid or clean the toilets like Mr. Smee. (NdR.: Spugna (Mr.Smee in Italian) In the Association Peter Pan is the name of who is part of the equipe, responsible for the cleaning the structures)
Q.: Peter Pan is a child who can fly and will never grow up. How much Peter Pan is in you?
A.: I have always liked flight, I did the Accademia Aeronautica of Pozzuoli, but then I came back to Rome, before the vow, before I would have only studied and not flew.. like Peter Pan, I feel a children in my heart. I am not serious, I live in a joyful way, I like to see, know and fly from one world to another…smiling in front of a sunset, nature, natural beauty of things. This is the childish part of my, that luckily, I did not lose, and I don’t want to.
Q.: “In order to learn how to fly, you need happy thoughts”, this is one of the symbolic sentences of the Association Peter Pan- how do we have happy thoughts? And what is happiness today?
A.: Eh..(laughter) this question is for Pope Francesco. Happy thoughts are tied to people who love you. Feeling loved is a happy though. The child feels loved by the parents and this makes him happy. You can think to the yacht, to a house in Manhattan, your company who with an invoice of 100 billion of dollars per year, that is not a happy thought. You will see instead happy people, because they feel loved even if they’re poor. A family who feels loved coming to Rome to take care of their children, stings you, a sprinkle of fairy dust…
Q.: Gian Paolo, what is your dream?
A.: It’s burning inside, seeing how badly we welcome immigrants, how old people are treated like objects and many other categories,,, My dream is the Peter Pan shelter styles, with its values of shelter and respect, would also be applied to other categories who are in need…Old people, immigrants, people asking for asylum: doing with them a path, accompanying them in the most complicated stages of their lives. We are full of lonely old people for example…
Q.: To conclude, a suggestion in 4 parts to who wants to dedicate their life to others and follow a career in the non profit; what do they need to look inside them, which sacrifices they have to be ready to do, which objectives have to be set and which satisfactions you can expect from it?
- What to look for inside ourselves? Ourselves! When we decide to follow a life, a career without aiming for success and fame, we need to be aware of who we are. You need to know yourself very well. It is an important choice that impacts on the others, and it does not have to be a choice of the moment, if you really want to improve the world, you need to ask yourself if you are aware of who you are and if you want to improve yourself;
- What are the sacrifices we have to be ready to do? Renounce to all the things, but not to ourselves. If you are very bounded with things, stability, family of origins, you have to accept of be away from all of it.
But you need to have your own Ethical Code, and to that you never have to renounce; I can never turn tricks, not even for the good causes, I need to have respect of myself. I renounce to a world made of possessions for a world made of people, starting from me;
- Which are the objectives to set? It doesn’t have to be a fixed objective. The final line, is to be able to do at the best whatever we are doing: I always have to go with the intention of giving my best, both for small things and bigger projects. In doing your best, you will find out that there are things that you do better than others, and you will understand your path;
- Which and how many satisfactions? A lot! The greatest satisfaction is the one of being happy. In doing things at the best, no matter the results, you will feel that the World loves you more, also when in pain.
By Guido Pacifici
This rubric is published monthly and it has been ideated and curated by Guido Pacifici, Journalist and Tv Author, with Marco Crescenzi.
Picture: Gian Paolo Montini, taken from the blog giorgiapetrini.me