On June 23rd 1919, Hermann Gmeiner was born into a large farming family in Vorarlberg (present-day Austria). When he lost his mother at the age of five, his elder sister Elsa took on the responsibility of caring for the younger siblings. He missed his mother tremendously and often used to express this feeling as, “There is nothing but emptiness where my mom stood.”
Gmeiner was a talented child and won a scholarship to attend grammar school. He also started working towards a medical degree. At the age of 21, he went on to serve as a soldier in Russia, during the Second World War. During his service, he witnessed the horrors of war, especially the injustices that children faced – from being orphaned to fathers never returning back home. Later, at the end of the Second World War, as a child welfare worker, he closely experienced the isolation and suffering that war orphans and homeless children undergo. These experiences convinced him help could never be effective as long as children had to grow up without a home of their own.
In 1945, when he was still studying medicine at Innsbruck University, he became immensely involved in youth work. In fact, his involvement with children kept him so busy that he finally decided to discontinue his medical degree course. The fate of many orphans, abandoned children, and so called reform homes touched his own experience both as a child and soldier. He felt that abandoned children should be given a place where they feel like home and ignoring them is neither just nor humane. The only proper answer to the loss of a family is to raise a child as closely to an actual family environment, as possible.
He then came across institutions, but none, according to him, were satisfactorily meeting the needs of children. Their facilities never satisfied him. Further, children were separated by gender, which is not how a family lives. These experiences and observations sowed the seed for a better form of care for children; he was motivated to set up a relief organization for orphans as well as adoptive mothers. In 1949, with just 600 Austrian Schillings (approx. 40 US dollars) in his pocket and with the support of a few friends, Gmeiner founded Societas Socialies, which was later renamed to SOS – Kindergorf and is now known as Save Our Souls (SOS) in English. The founding stone for the first SOS Children’s Village in Imst, in the Austrian state of Tyrol, was laid. On December 24th 1950, 5 orphans with their unnamed mother moved into the first village.
The following decades of his life were dedicated to building and expanding SOS Children’s Villages in Austria as well as other European countries. After building the first five homes, he ran out of funds; in fact, he was not able to pay the builders too. He instead bought time from them by assuring them that support from society would soon come, through which he would pay them. His words came true when over the next few years, thousand of Austrians saw the difference SOS was making in the lives of abandoned children and supported him whole-heartedly. 1963 saw the first non-European SOS Children’s Village to in Daegu, Korea; and soon after, SOS Children’s Villages on the American and African continents followed.
By 1985 the result of Hermann Gmeiner’s work was a total of 233 SOS Children’s Villages in 85 countries. In recognition of his services to orphaned and abandoned children he received numerous awards and was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, he was always at pains to stress that it was only thanks to the support of millions of people that it had been possible to achieve the goal of providing abandoned children with a permanent home, and that still applies today.
Hermann Gmeiner died in Innsbruck in 1986. He is buried at SOS Children’s Village Imst.