1949 The Early Days
Born into a large Austrian farm family in 1919, Hermann Gmeiner experienced the horrors of World War II as a soldier in Russia.
As a child welfare worker after the war, he witnessed the isolation and suffering of thousands of war orphans and homeless children. He saw appalling conditions in orphanages and destitute children everywhere and he was deeply affected.
Gmeiner experienced firsthand the pain of losing his mother when he was a young boy, and knew the void it left in his life. This personal experience of great loss drove a vision that would guide him for a lifetime.
He became convinced that having a caring mother to provide security, love, and stability was crucial for the healthy development of children, especially war orphans.
SOS mothers and the homes and community they could provide would fill an emotional void for children who had lost any semblance of love and belonging.
With just a few shillings in his pocket, he established the first SOS Children’s Village Association in 1949. That same year, the foundation stone was laid for the first SOS Children’s Village in the town of Imst, 30 miles from Austria’s Tyrolean capital of Innsbruck.
Perched on a hill above the small alpine town, the Imst Village was started with small donations, and a great deal of enthusiasm from individual citizens, especially as they suffered themselves in war-torn cities and devastating poverty.
In the 1950s this single Village became the springboard for developing the worldwide network of nearly 500 SOS Children’s Villages that we know today. Gmeiner had been planning to become a doctor, but his burning passion for saving more children took precedence, and he abandoned his medical studies.
He served as the first Village Director in Imst and arranged for construction of further Villages in Austria and many other countries across Europe.
He died in 1986 and is buried at SOS Imst Village, but his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of millions around the world whose lives have been changed by his vision.
The Legacy Lives On ...
A similar family tragedy inspired Helmut Kutin, today’s president of SOS-Kinderdorf International, to become Gmeiner’s successor. Kutin moved to SOS Imst in 1953 at the age of twelve.
His eldest sister had been murdered, his mother had died shortly thereafter, and he was no longer able to care for his ill father. His SOS mother Antonia raised Kutin like one of her own. “What impressed me most about her,” says Kutin, “was that she always tried to be equally fair to each of us, to be the same mother to us all.” He recalls a “wonderful childhood” at SOS Children’s Village in Imst, years that “even today are still a source of strength and optimism for me in my daily work.”
That work, reflecting Hermann Gmeiner’s vision, revolves around the principles that having a loving mother, siblings, a home, and a supportive community gives a child a place to belong and makes one feel safe and wanted.
This kind of foundation is what enables children to become successful adults.