Hermann Gmeiner was born in Alberschwende, Vorarlberg, Austria on 23 June, 1919 as one of the many children of a farmer. His mother died when he was very young and his elder 16-year old sister Elsa took the mother’s place for her younger brothers and sisters. Thus Hermann Gmeiner grew up under her care. For him she had practised the profession of the SOS mother, which became the focus of his SOS idea.
In the area in which he grew up the existence of a farmer’s family depends wholly on the co-operation of parents and children. Hermann Gmeiner, too, had to help on the farm when he was a boy. He earned his first pocket money as a herdsboy and a choir-boy. He showed much talent in the elementary school and received a scholarship for the grammar-school in Feldkirch.
During the Second World War, Hermann Gmeiner had to join the military service and was wounded several times on the eastern front.
In 1946 Hermann Gmeiner began the study of medicine at the University of Innsbruck. He wanted to become a paediatrician. Furthermore, he was engaged in youth welfare work and saw the plight and distress of post-war youth and refugee children, and sought a way to help. Consequently he developed the SOS concept, namely the simple idea to offer abandoned and orphaned children a valuable substitute for their lost families.
It was a hazardous enterprise. The various authorities of the time did not understand this new SOS idea. Hermann Gmeiner’s great support at first were a few SOS friends who quickly increased in number later on. With 600 Austrian Shillings he founded the Association SOS-Kinderdorf in 1949, and in the same year the foundation stone of the first SOS Children’s Village in Imst, Tyrol could be laid.
His activities and organisational tasks kept Hermann Gmeiner so busy that he had to make the serious decision to give up his studies and dedicate himself wholly to the work with abandoned children.
Therefore, after the age of thirty, the curriculum vitae of Hermann Gmeiner is almost identical with the history of the SOS Children’s Villages.
He was the Village Director of Imst; he organised the foundation of further SOS Children’s Villages in Austria, and helped to construct SOS Children’s Villages in many European countries.
In 1963, after the Korean war, the first non-European SOS Children’s Village was built in Daegu, Korea. But also in many other countries of the Third World the SOS idea was greeted enthusiastically. Hermann Gmeiner searched for possibilities to construct SOS Children’s Villages in Asia, Latin America and Africa. SOS Associations were founded in the Federal Republic of Germany, in Denmark, in Norway, in Sweden, in Great Britain, in Switzerland, in Canada and in the United States of America. It is their task to raise the necessary funds for the construction and the maintenance of SOS Children’s Villages in developing countries.
The head organisation of SOS-Kinderdorf International, the first president of which was Hermann Gmeiner, co-ordinates this world-wide task since 1964.
In 1985 Hermann Gmeiner can look upon 225 SOS Children’s Villages and 368 Social Centres in 85 countries of the world. In recognition of his merits for a world-wide reform of the care of orphaned and abandoned children, he has been awarded many honorary degrees and prizes. He is an honorary member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, an honorary doctor of two Universities and among others was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Sonning-Prize of the University of Copenhagen, the International Humanitarian Award of the Variety Club International and the honorary citizenship of the City of Bethlehem.
But he never forgets to mention that more than 5 million people who contribute to this social work, because they have understood his idea: To offer the uprooted child the security of a family which it needs to develop.
Hermann Gmeiner died of cancer on 26 April, 1986 in Innsbruck. He was buried in the SOS Children's Village Imst.