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‘The Power of a Smile’- Panayiotis Kapanides Finds His Purpose at Springfield College

Garrett Cote

Only so much about life are the events that directly impact a person. The majority of it, however, is how that individual reacts to these events; how they respond. Do they choose to let them define who they are, or do they strive to improve in small-scale phases every waning minute of each day?

For Springfield College junior Panayiotis ‘Pete’ Kapanides, the answer to that question is simple.

“He was the first person I can sit here and say that I learned how to grow around him,” said Kapanides’ best friend, Cam Borges.

“We would challenge each other every single day to get out of our comfort zone. To get better. It was special because we were so comfortable talking about our emotions, and we would sit down and do it all the time. It really helped him grow.”

During Kapanides’ freshman year on Alden Street, he was blind sided and betrayed by one of the most important people in his life. While visiting his significant other on Valentine’s Day in February of 2020 at Westfield State, he learned she had been unfaithful to him. About a month later, Springfield announced that there were no plans to return to campus for the remainder of the 2020 spring semester because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was in a deep hole,” Kapanides said.

“I was super depressed through all of quarantine, and just waking up every day and having to Zoom all of my classes was awful. The only thing that would get me through the day was working out in my backyard, shooting hoops or going for a run. All of my trust that I once had, was just broken like that.”

This sent him on a downward spiral, plummeting towards rock bottom. On top of this, Kapanides was hesitant to leave his Bedford, Mass. home, because his grandparents were living there with no option to fly back to their home country of Greece since the pandemic had become such a real threat.

Being trapped in his room seemingly forced him to work on his mental health. It forced him to rebuild himself after offering so much of his time and effort into one relationship.

“I had my grandparents living with me, so I couldn’t do much,” Kapanides said. “I wouldn’t even eat dinner near them because I didn’t want to risk anything with COVID. I was going from my bedroom, to the bathroom to outside, just working on myself. I didn’t see anyone for two months until my grandparents were able to fly back to Greece.

“Going through that sucked. It was the low point of my life, but I would say quarantine is probably the best thing that has ever happened to me because I was just locked in. I used all that time to myself, and there was no better time for me to focus on me.”

After pondering the thought of not returning to Springfield for his sophomore year, Kapanides chose to give it another shot, and he made the decision to room with Borges in International Hall. Similar to the scenario at his house, there weren’t too many places for Kapanides to go by dint of the coronavirus guidelines the school installed, so the only option was to sit in his room. His relationship with Borges would soon blossom.

“We knew when we just needed to sit down and talk about life,” Kapanides said. “Whether we were playing Madden super close to the screen, or sitting on our beds looking out the window, we clicked on a different level. I got so into mental health during those moments because I realized that everybody goes through something different.”

The strides Kapanides took from his freshman to sophomore year were as big of strides as his 6’3 frame can take – which are huge. One of the first people to notice a difference was his teammate on the Pride men’s basketball team, Daryl Costa.

“When he came in as a freshman, he wasn’t that vocal, he was more on the shy side,” Costa said. “But he grew into an incredible leader, and he was constantly looking for ways to better himself. Coming off the COVID year, we kind of had a weird gap of people on the team with experience. Pete took that big jump to become one of the definite leaders of this team.”

Not only did he become a leader of the basketball team, he became a leader in his community. Kapanides joined the club Minds in Motion (which was co-founded by Borges), an on-campus club geared towards the normalization of mental health struggles. He’s now a member of the e-board, and makes a significant impact during the club meetings.

“Pete dove right into that stuff, he loved it,” Borges said. “I didn’t realize how intellectually brilliant he was at first. He would sit down at night and write in a little notebook, so I could see that his brain needed to be picked at certain points. So he would start coming to the meetings, and he got more and more involved each time.”

As his sophomore year wrapped up, Kapanides had forgotten about the infidelity of his past relationship, and moved on to a healthier lifestyle. A simplistic one at that.

“I just try to be me now, I don’t care what people think,” Kapanides said. “It was hard at first, opening up to my closest friends about what had happened, and I was shaking when I went to tell them. But after I got it out, it felt so good. I grew my hair out, which I never thought I would do, just to show people I don’t care what they think. I’m going to be me. I try to live so simple now.”

This notion of simple living has been inherited by Kapanides’ Greek family. He used to visit his parents’ old houses every few years in Greece. Nicholas, his father, lived in a home right outside of Athens. His mother, Argoitsa, is from a small village in the mountains. Panayiotis has embodied their cultures, and still uses their practices to this day.

“It’s so cool going there, because nobody cares about phones or anything like that,” he said. “Everyone just goes to the center of town at night, eats food and drinks together, and has fun dancing and singing with a beautiful mountain range in the back. The Greek lifestyle is so unique and so simple. I definitely try to take a little piece of that with me.”

Nicholas is now a garage manager at Mirak Hyundai, a used car dealership in Arlington, Mass. about 15 minutes outside of Bedford. He’s the first person seen when customers enter the door, and he inspects his clients’ cars to let them know what the issue is before sending them through to the mechanic.

Agoritsa works as a lunch lady in the Lexington public school system. She is currently at an elementary school in the district, and enjoys serving the younger children with a big smile on her face. Agoritsa uses her smile to brighten her students’ and coworkers’ moods each day.

“My parents are everything to me,” Panayiotis said. “They did so much for me and my brother just to live out the American dream. They probably had the thought to live out the American dream when they came to America, but that isn’t easy at all. They had to work for everything they have, and now my brother and I are following in their footsteps to try and build something in America for ourselves.”

He is named ‘Panayiotis’ after the Greek icon ‘Panagia’, and he wears a bracelet every day with Greek icons on it to embrace his culture. In Greece, they celebrate ‘name days’ more seriously than they do birthdays. Kapanides’ name day falls on August 15, and he will typically have an enormous party with a big lamb roast as the main attraction.

Panayitois’ older brother, Iordanis, graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2020, and locked in a job as a consultant for a medical technology company in Boston. Panayiotis constantly thinks of his brother, and is proud of what he has become so quickly out of college.

“He loves what he’s doing, and it’s awesome to hear about it,” Panayiotis said. “He’s got a five minute walk from the beach, there’s all sorts of bars and restaurants right there. He’s living a great life, and he’s doing him. I look at what he’s got going for himself and I hope to be as successful as he is. I’m really happy for him.”

Now in the fall of 2021, with Panayiotis, who majors in exercise science, more than halfway through his stint at Springfield College, his name has a special ring to it around the community – all because of his willingness to accept every person, and his ability to touch each heart he encounters.

“He’s become such an incredible person that his name is now heard all over campus,” Costa said.

“Not just in the basketball world, but in leadership all over. There’s only positive things to talk about with him, and I’m so happy to see my brother do his thing. People like him just don’t come by all the time.”

Kapanides recently presented a slideshow to his basketball team, highlighting the importance of off the court character and leadership development, for the team to learn and understand.

“I brought up the slideshow idea to [Borges] at first, because that’s my go to guy on campus,” he said.

“We came up with some good ideas, and it became a really vulnerable moment when I presented it to the team. That was the biggest part of it. We all shared something that nobody knew about them, and it drew us all so much closer.”

Kapanides, along with being heavily involved with Minds in Motion, is also a student ambassador on Alden Street and has met a handful of wonderful people in the Admissions Office in return.

“My friend asked me to be a student ambassador, so I kind of just jumped right on it,” he said. “I ended up meeting a lot of amazing people in admissions. The cool thing about being at Springfield College is that, people say there are some nice people here, but literally whatever building you go into, you’re going to find a great group of people.”

That feeling is mutual. It isn’t just Kapanides having the pleasure of meeting nice people – they also get to meet him. His infectious aura is never overlooked by anyone he runs into.
“The way he treats his friends, teachers, strangers and everyone else is so consistent,” Borges said.

“He cares so much about everyone. That’s just who he is. It’s unbelievable. And I know it’s mutual, too.”

Trying to rekindle an old flame from the past, Kapanides took to the diamond in September to try out for the Pride baseball team. Following a meeting with head coach Mark Simeone, he learned he wasn’t going to be a part of the roster for this year. Another mental setback, it seemed.

But because of Kapanides’ new and improved mindset, this wasn’t a setback. It was another step towards growth.

“Before I even thought about basketball, I was a baseball player. I loved to do it more than anything,” he said. “When I got cut, it left me with a first thought of wondering if all that grind I put into it was worth it. I played a lot over the summer knowing I was going to try out, and I picked right back up on how good I was when I was younger.

“Getting cut didn’t affect me because I knew my potential, I didn’t need any reassurance by making the team. I put in the work and did everything I could to put myself in a position to succeed. It just didn’t work out.”

Despite his love for baseball, basketball was his scapegoat. It was a way to clear his mind. He looked up at this old poster in his room, in his house on Wellington St. in Springfield, of LeBron James’ patented chalk toss with a grin – perhaps recalling all of his favorite basketball memories – and dropped his head back down.

“I just can’t get away from basketball, man. I can’t wait to coach when I’m older. I know I’m going to. I feel like I could impact so many more lives and do a really good job coaching a team,” Kapanides said.

As Borges mentioned, Kapanides loved to write in a little notebook. It allows him to reflect on where he was, and compare it to where he is now. It allows him to truly appreciate his growth as a person.

He reached down into his North Face bookbag, and pulled out his coveted notebook. With a smile as big as ever spanning from one ear to the other, he read the first page that he scribed in the fall of 2020.

“Second week of school just finished. Great vibes. Be you,” one entry said.

“Took a mental setback this weekend. You know what to do and what not to do, keep yourself accountable,” read another one.

Panayiotis Kapanides is a strong, brave, and caring young man with a contagious personality and smile. He embraced his mental struggles and used them to build character, and now that smile holds a tremendous amount of power.

“It’s always been important to me to check in on whoever,” Kapanides said. “It doesn’t even have to be a deep conversation all the time, it could be a simple interaction as I pass by them on campus. It could be something as simple as a smile.”

Photo Courtesy Springfield College

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