More than Meals: Summer Feeding 2017

Beck and Keaton, two high school students from Columbus, Ohio, had no idea how their lives would transform when they signed up to volunteer with FOCUS North America’s Summer Feeding Program. The two suburban teens first volunteered to serve meals to underprivileged kids about halfway through the program’s run last summer, and they quickly became regulars at the site. They even brought their lacrosse team to serve and play with the children who attended. Nathan Smith, the Site Supervisor of Columbus Summer Feeding, described these young men as “magnetic” forces that made Summer Feeding an exciting experience for volunteers and children alike.

Beck and Keaton’s passion for the children at Summer Feeding propelled them to get their lacrosse coach involved in fundraising for a Summer Feeding family. The team raised thousands of dollars to provide a family of nine with a Christmas tree, gifts, and winter clothing. The young men’s mothers were so inspired by their sons that they fundraised money to pay the rent for another Summer Feeding family.

As I sat down to talk with Nathan Smith from Columbus, I realized that Beck and Keaton’s story is a window into a larger picture of what Summer Feeding means. But before he got to that, Nathan reminded me about why Summer Feeding exists in the first place.

Summer months are particularly difficult for impoverished families whose children qualify for free or reduced meals through federal programs. Since children are not in school to receive free, nutritionally balanced meals, their families must provide for them out of their own pockets. As a result, these families have to make difficult choices between feeding their children and paying their bills.

“Unfortunately, in poverty culture, nutrition isn’t a priority that’s in the hierarchy of needs,” Nathan said in our interview. “If you’re struggling to pay rent and keep the lights on, whether or not your child gets the correct proportion of fresh produce a day goes on the backburner.”

Not only do children struggle to get nutritious meals that fuel their brains in the summer, but they also suffer from other hunger-related challenges. While in elementary school, hungry children are likely to repeat grade levels and fall behind in language and motor skills development. In a larger sense, they have lasting social and behavioral problems that put them at a disadvantage throughout their lives.

13 million children suffer from hunger in the United States. FOCUS North America developed the Summer Feeding Program to meet the needs of these hungry children and to create meaningful service opportunities for Orthodox volunteers in localized areas.

As Beck and Keaton’s story shows, Summer Feeding serves another large-scale purpose: to grow volunteers. Nathan remarked that when it comes to volunteer work, teens and young people often play small roles in projects operated by adults. What made Summer Feeding worthwhile for Beck and Keaton is that they were able to be key players in the simple but critical tasks of day-to-day operations. “This was something they could do,” Nathan said. “This was something that allowed them to be the motor for what’s going on.”

Besides becoming indispensable servants at Summer Feeding Columbus, Beck and Keaton’s love for service grew past what they or their families had imagined for them. The young men’s new interests include mission trips and local fundraising events for FOCUS. Their story reflects what Nathan calls the “untapped Christian goodwill” of Christians who do not know how or are afraid to get involved with serving the impoverished in their communities. Summer Feeding is the perfect entry point for working with FOCUS ministries since it is a simple way that volunteers can experience the power of building relationships through service.

The greater Christian message of Summer Feeding, according to Nathan, is the opportunity to connect with others on a very human level. Christians who volunteer at Summer Feeding commit to more than feeding hungry children. They commit to sharing the transforming love of Christ through building meaningful relationships. Serving meals is just the beginning.

Nathan believes that in order to fully meet people where they are and love as Christ does, volunteers should put their hands to work alongside their wallets. “Christian nonprofit work should be asking me to open your heart to another person, not just with a checkbook, but in an ability to serve another human person.” When volunteers and children come together at Summer Feeding to create community with one another, they participate in the work of Christ, in whose eyes there is no distinction between rich and poor. This kind of love is what brings people from all walks of life closer to one another and closer to God.

This summer, FOCUS North America invites you to participate in the life-changing work that Summer Feeding is doing in our three target areas: Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Orange County. We have already served over 700 meals in just a few weeks. In each of these areas, we still need volunteers to give their time, energy, and love to serve hungry children and to show them that they are important in God’s eyes. For more information about how to get involved, visit our website to help us feed hungry kids.

By Addie Pazzynski, National Programs Intern

Press Release: FOCUS North America Announces New Executive Director

Carnegie, PA (June 23, 2017) — FOCUS North America announced today that its Board of Directors has appointed Seraphim Danckaert the organization’s next Executive Director. Danckaert, who previously served as Director of Mission Advancement at St. Tikhon’s Seminary, will succeed Nicholas Chakos, who resigned to pursue other opportunities.

“We want to thank Nick for his service over the last five years. During his tenure, FOCUS has grown significantly to become a high impact and highly regarded Orthodox Christian charity,” Dr. Eric Paljug, Chair of the Board, said. “Today, we are thrilled to welcome Seraphim as the new Executive Director and look forward to his leadership as the organization continues to grow.”

Danckaert, a graduate of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, has held leadership roles at Princeton Theological Seminary, Orthodox Christian Network, and St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

“I am grateful to the board for the opportunity to lead this exceptional organization, which is not only transforming the lives of people in poverty across the country, but also transforming the hearts of the thousands of volunteers who participate in our service-oriented programs,” Danckaert said. “I look forward to working with the talented staff and getting to know the entire FOCUS network of donors, volunteers, and partners.”

FOCUS North America helps working-poor families and the homeless move from dependency to lives of self-sufficiency. As the only Orthodox Christian organization to hold the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance National Charity Seal, FOCUS works collaboratively with communities, parishes, and partners nationwide. In 2017, FOCUS will feed over 300,000 people; offer job training, employment, educational support, and housing to over 1,000 families; and keep thousands of children from going hungry. 

A key feature of FOCUS programs is volunteer engagement. Hands-on service programs unite the giver with the underserved, thereby transforming all of our lives and breaking the cycle of poverty. While many FOCUS volunteers are Eastern Orthodox Christians, FOCUS provides services without discrimination of any kind, and there is no faith commitment required either to volunteer or to receive assistance.

FOCUS’ Jonah House featured in the Word Magazine

Nicholas Chakos, Executive Director of FOCUS North America, said, “ The Jonah House will be bringing a credible solution to a dire need in Columbus. While FOCUS provides infrastructure and organization to centers around the country, the folks in Columbus have done all of the groundwork and are stepping up to impact their community meaningfully.”

Click Here to read the full article on this great new project

 

‘We showed that together we are great’: Reconnecting in one Pittsburgh neighborhood

“Staff from FOCUS Pittsburgh (Food, Opportunity, Clothing, Understanding and Shelter), a social service nonprofit in the Hill District, knew some residents there and believed they would successfully pioneer a new kind of community development model, one that was very personal.”

Click HERE to read the full Pittsburgh Post Gazette article about our Trauma Informed Community Development program.

Faces of the Nameless

He put a simple ad on a photography website that stated: “I had an idea for a socially orientated photography project, and I’m looking for someone who might have an interest in joining me.” Wooldridge replied to the ad, and the duo agreed to put the project into action.

St. Herman was the first homeless shelters they approached, and the reception was very positive.

Paul Finley, the local director of St. Herman House in Cleveland, welcomed the project. He had been approached in the past by numerous photographers who asked to take pictures of the homeless, but this request was unique. It would be a way to allow homeless people in his Focus North America, Orthodox Christian House of Hospitality, to speak for themselves.

Click HERE to read the full Cleveland Magazine article from April about FOCUS Cleveland- St. Herman House photography project.

An Orthodox House of Rejuvenation

“I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, And He

answered me.”
—Jonah 2:2

“There simply aren’t enough places for sober living in our community,” said Nathan Smith, the co-founder and director of FOCUS Columbus’ Jonah House. Columbus, Ohio is an epicenter of heroin abuse and addiction in the Midwest. This heroin epidemic has become increasingly visible as community after community has seen sharp increases in deaths caused by this dangerous drug.

Many people are battling every day to free themselves from their addictions, which result in situations such as homelessness, poor health, and financial instability. Nathan recognized that Columbus has one of the best shelter systems in the country. However, shelters can be horrible places for anyone recovering from addiction. FOCUS Columbus’ Jonah House will fill the gap that currently exists in the homeless service system for addicts.

Opportunity Meets Desire

The Jonah House, which is slated to open in the fall of 2017, will provide a critical transitional step for former heroin addicts to move from dependency to self-sufficiency. The house will be a safe, caring living space and will also arrange meaningful, daily work for residents. In-house professional partners will help residents with their mental and physical health, and provide guidance for everyday tasks.

Nicholas Chakos, Executive Director of FOCUS North America said, “The Jonah House will be bringing a credible solution to a dire need in Columbus. While FOCUS provides infrastructure and organization to centers around the country, the local folks in Columbus have done all of the groundwork and are stepping up to meaningfully impact their community.”

The goal is for Jonah House residents to be able to focus entirely on themselves and their recovery for six months or a year.  “There will be professional, volunteer, and spiritual help,” said Peter Gardikes, who is a Jonah House ministry team member and Parish Council Member at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Columbus. “Ultimately, we’d like to see people who have gone through Jonah House mentor those who come after them. We’re creating a community of people supporting one another.” Jonah House is successfully leveraging churches in central Ohio to create a network of support and opportunity to those who successfully complete the transition once leaving the Jonah House.

Jonah as a metaphor and method

In the Old Testament story, Jonah experiences incredible turbulence on a boat as he attempts to flee God’s command. Jonah’s knows it is his fault that the other passengers are in danger– and he also knows that a change has to take place. Jonah admits to those onboard that he has disobeyed God. Like Jonah, those who are addicted unintentionally cause pain to those they love. Similarly, these individuals must come to realize this, and take steps to come back into unity with those around them.

After being cast into the sea, Jonah enters into the belly of the whale. In our case, this time is likened to a period of rehabilitation. When an addict is taken away from his or her storm and entered into a period of distance from the cause of pain, they prevent themselves from causing damage to themselves and others. Just as Jonah emerged to deliver a saving message to the people of Nineveh, when the addict emerges, they are resurrected with the desire to contribute to a community and purpose greater than themselves. The parallels are unmistakable.

Just as Jonah’s three days in the belly of the sea monster transformed the way Jonah functioned as a messenger of God, FOCUS Columbus’s Jonah House will become a vehicle through which recovered addicts in the Columbus community discover their importance as individuals— and their ability transform others around them.

Please say a prayer for the Jonah House. If you wish to learn more and support the sustainability of this ministry, please contact FOCUS North America.

The Liturgy After the Liturgy

By: Kamal Hourani

For Orthodox Christians, the Divine Liturgy is the center of our life in Christ. We must be convinced that there is no greater beauty, no greater joy, no greater privilege than to enter God’s house, sing His praises, listen to His words, and to be united to Him in the very Body and Blood of His Christ. There is no higher state for man than to sit at the table with the Lord and to simply be with Him, in Him, and have Him in us.

The sublimity of the Liturgy, however, does not mean that there is no other place on earth worth spending time. As Saint Maria Skobtsova writes, “Christ, in ascending to heaven, did not take the Church with Him…Christ left the Church in the world. It was left as a small bit of leavening.”

We Christians long for the age to come, when there will be no sickness, sorrow, or sighing. Our hearts ache to be with Christ. Sometimes we are so fed up with the suffering and horrors of this world and we wonder why Christ would ascend and leave us here in the first place. Saint Maria’s writing suggests one answer. We need a shift in perspective, not location.  We cannot yet ascend to be in Christ’s Kingdom because His plan is to use us to bring His Kingdom down into the earth. He works with us to transfigure this world as a baker transforms a heap of flour with a little yeast. There is no need to wait for the end of this age. The end of the age is now, when we work with God to overcome the world’s fallenness.

If we are going to truly be part of this Church, part of the leaven of the earth, we need to know how to express God’s Kingdom on earth. Christ gives us the necessary instructions, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:3). Saint Maria compares this beatitude to the monastic vow of non-possession. Just as a monk must renounce all earthly possessions, every Christian must sell away the barriers we put up to cut ourselves off from God and the pride we cling to in order to avoid serving others. Saint Maria compares these to dirty rags that we must sell away in favor of the incorruptible richness of the “laying down of our soul for our friends.”

In the Divine Liturgy, in return for our offering bread and wine, Christ gives His very self to us in the Eucharist. This mutual relationship of eucharistic offering becomes the icon for all of our relationships in this world. As Christ gave his life for us on the Cross, so we must give our lives for the sake of our neighbors. Just as Christ overlooks all of our imperfections, so also must we overlook the shortcomings of our neighbors and serve them all the more. This work of serving others is the only way that the work of the Divine Liturgy becomes complete.

Each of us are constantly given opportunities to serve others. In our interactions with our families, coworkers, and friends we can choose to be servants. We are also called to go out and actively serve the poor. While this sometimes takes a little more initiative, the spiritual benefits are unending. By giving our time, talent, and treasure to ministries like FOCUS North America, we are not only having important community with the poor, but also training ourselves to be ready to serve whenever the Lord sends an opportunity our way.

In this fallen world, we are hungry, thirsty, beaten, and stripped naked by tragedy and suffering. Ultimately, only Christ can satisfy the needs of the world and overcome our poverty with His riches. But it is through human beings, even us, that Chris is manifest. In our own life of love, we offer our neighbors Christ himself, who heals the wounds of this world.

Christian charity, though FOCUS and other ministries alike, must not only address the physical needs of the poor but also the internal poverty that comes from separation from God. When we hand a man a piece of bread, we also hope that he will be nourished by our love for him. When we give clothing to the naked, we hope that they will be wrapped in dignity as well. This art of loving the world takes a lifetime to master, but we must begin each day with a new resolve to build on this universal Christian ministry of service. Approaching the chalice on Sunday cannot be a mundane chore that we check off each week. It has to be the fountainhead of the torrent of our love for the world. We must translate the liturgy in our parish churches into the liturgy after the liturgy that takes place in the entirety of God’s creation.

Kamal Hourani is a student at Hellenic College in Brookline, MA. He is a graduate of FOCUS North America’s YES (Youth Equipped to Serve) Program and has also become a leader in that program. To learn about how YES is shaping the leaders of our church visit www.focusnorthamerica.org/yes.

A Day in the Life: Sunday Nights at FOCUS Minnesota

From FOCUS Minnesota

If you made it to this page, you likely are already familiar with FOCUS–that is, you know generally about the mission and work of the organization (if this isn’t the case, feel free to check out our “About” page for some basic information). However, without spending a lot of time at FOCUS Center, it can be hard to have a clear picture of our work and the ethos that undergirds it. This blog series, “A Day in the Life,” is meant to give you a window into the “What’s” and “Why’s” of FOCUS. 

Picture

When I think of describing  Sunday Night Dinners at FOCUS, the word, “mercy,” is the first that comes to my mind.

Mercy is of course, at the core of FOCUS’ mission, but I think it characterizes our weekly community meal in a special sort of way. There is no registration process for Sunday Dinners. There is no upper limit on how many members of your family you can bring, or how often per month you can come. You don’t have to bring an I.D. or proof of address. Anyone can show up for a hot meal and a warm space, no questions asked.

Lord have mercy. 

Friday, 11:30 AM
The logistics of Sunday Dinners really start today. I stop in at the Center, touch base with Vera, our Director, and check the supply closet to make sure we’re stocked up on paper products and silverware. I also check the calendar to confirm who will be bringing the meal and helping to serve it. We are blessed to have a schedule of regular groups from local parishes, youth sports teams, and other volunteers. This week in particular, a youth group from an Orthodox Parish is scheduled to serve.

Sunday, 3:55 PM
I pull up to FOCUS, a few minutes early…and am greeted by a small assembly of people already waiting to be let in: the catering team from the youth group is already here! So are John* and Alex*, our former-clients-turned-volunteers. They used to come every week to eat dinner. Now they come to serve, one acting as an informal DJ by providing ambient music, the other helping wait tables.

Lord have mercy. 

I unlock the door and we all begin to unload and carry in supplies.

4:20 PM
40 minutes until we open for guests and set-up is already in fully swing. FOCUS’ large multipurpose room has been transformed into a dining room, complete with table clothes, plastic ware and condiments at each place, and ambient music in the background.

Coffee is brewing and volunteers are busy in the kitchen, warming tortillas, heating taco meat, chopping tomatoes.

Most of our core group of volunteers also have arrived by now. We have an informal team of three to five who devote their time and energy to FOCUS almost every week. In many ways, they are what makes Sunday Nights run smoothly.

Lord have mercy. 

5:03 PM
We gather in the kitchen as the first guests start to arrive. Vera gives general instructions and assigns people to different tasks in order to make the evening run smoothly. Volunteer adults: prepare plates in the kitchen. Youth volunteers: bring plates to guests and clean and reset places as they empty. One more person is assigned to refill drinks, another two to keep track of the number of people in the dining room and order plates from the kitchen.We then take a minute to pray over the meal and regain our focus for the evening.”…and to the guests we shall receive, O merciful Lord, grant peace, security, and healing and Thy merciful loving kindness as they bear the challenges of this earthly life…”

These words articulate why we are all really here tonight. It’s not about how meany meals we serve. It’s not about who the guests are or hardships they may or may not face. It’s not even just about giving a meaningful volunteer experience to the group who brought the meal. It’s about doing what we can to provide a bit of kindness to those who come to us.

Lord have mercy.

As we break up the prayer circle and take our stations, the dining room starts to fill. Families. Single adults. Children of various ages. Troops of 4 or 5 friends who came together. The dining room starts to hum with activity. As guests are seated, volunteers offer them something to drink before bringing them a plate from the kitchen. No buffet lines here. We want the guests to feel as if they’re in a restaurant. We want their time to be restful.

5:50 PM
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People continue to filter in and the pace of things picks up. As the first round of guests finishes their dinner, we offer them seconds, sometimes thirds. Later on, if we have enough extra food, we will also offer them a to-go box of extra portions. You see, for many of them, this meal is the first (and only) meal that they get all weekend.

Lord have mercy. 

The first round of folks gradually begins to wrap up their meals and take their leave. Some finish quickly without stopping to chat.As their spaces empty, a youth volunteers cleans and resets it for the next guest. Others linger over a second cup of coffee and, when we volunteers get a chance, we make an effort to sit down with them. Sometimes we exchanges names for the first time and make pleasant small talk, but many of the people who linger are regulars and the conversation is spent catching up on life. These are the guests that bring the sense of familiarity associated with community.

That is, after all, what these Sunday dinners are: a little community that has emerged over the last five years over a shared hot meal.

6:45 PM
By now, the evening is wrapping up. The youth are busily breaking down tables and taking out the trash. Most of our guests have left by now–most stopping to say “thank you’s” and “goodnight’s,” others simply shuffling out the door. A few stragglers are still finishing up.

A woman comes through the front door. “Excuse me…is there where the…the free dinner is?”

A volunteer greets her and guides her to one of the remaining tables, where we quickly bring her a plate of hot food. Someone sits down with her as she eats. She’s upset, crying quietly over her food, mumbling to herself. Though she tells us very little about her circumstances, it’s clear she’s struggling. And in this particular space, at this particular time, with so little information, there’s not much we can really do that will offer a permanent “fix” for whatever situation she’s in.

But was can offer a hot meal. We can offer her information about shelters nearby and offer to call them for her. We can offer a new coat out of our clothes closet to replace the one she’s wearing that won’t zip. We can encourage her to come back next week, for the foodshelf on Wednesday, for the clothes distribution on Friday. Most importantly, we can offer a listening ear, some kindness, and a safe space, if only for a little while.

And just maybe, God willing, these little offerings can help blunt the sting of the hardship this woman faces.

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.