Youth Use Summer Break to Serve Others

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Niko Touloumes was planning on using some of his summer break to do a service project, but he never thought the project would change his perspective on those in need.

Touloumes was one of 18 youth from Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Christian Church in Pittsburgh who participated in the June Appalachia service trip, a ministry of FOCUS North America. The group of middle school and high school students were joined by six adult leaders.

The goal of these short term ministry trips is to build a sense of service and community by providing an opportunity for church groups to travel together, work together, serve together and grow together. Projects include home repair, landscaping, and various domestic projects for the poor living in the heart of the Appalachian region. In some parts of the Appalachian region of NC where the FOCUS NA teams serve there is an almost 20% unemployment rate.

“I was expecting to come down and help people, not necessarily interact with them,” Touloumes said.  “But I came here and found out why they’re in these situations.”

The teens and their adult leaders worked hard and always had a great attitude as they worked on graveling a driveway, painting a garage, removing a rotting deck, painting the interior of a house, moving heavy furniture and various landscaping projects.

The working poor families served by these groups are always very grateful for the help, Niko Petrogeorge, FOCUS North America ministry team intern, said.

“We painted the inside of an elderly couple’s home,” Petrogeorge said. “Mr. Upright was very appreciative of our work and wanted to help us.

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We got him started on something he wouldn’t have been able to do on his own and provided the resources and materials for the project.”

The group ended its time on their service trip withprayer at the Quiet Reflections Retreat Center nearby lead by Fr. John Touloumes.

Petrogeorge said Fr. John Touloumes, priest at Holy Trinity and leader on the trip, already wants to bring a group back next summer to serve again.

The work done for needy families and the work done in the hearts of those who serve is always a welcome benefit.

“I feel like being on this mission trip has helped me grow as an Orthodox Christian,” said Georgia Gagianas, another teen participant on the trip. “There were times when things didn’t go as planned, but we realized that this trip wasn’t about us and we just needed to be patient and do what was necessary to help the people we came to serve.”

If your church group might be interested in serving together on a FOCUS North America Appalachia service trip contact Niko Petrogeorge at JavaScript required to view address or call 1-866-267-3083.

Men Learning to be Men

“My father didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.” —Clarence Budington Kelland

Blessings to all the dads who provide their children with the love, support, and nurturing that all children need. As another Father's Day goes by, I think it is important to recognize the true value of fathers in our lives.

Fathers have traditionally provided children with a safety net from which they have learned to explore, to take risks, and to expand our horizons as a society. Mothers have historically received the bulk of our attention and affection and rightfully so. Fathers have always been willing to accept their second-class status without much fuss, but imagine a world without fathers.

For too long we have had a one-sided conversation in America that men, in general, are optional and specifically the role of fathers in the lives of their children is overrated. Research has clearly shown that children do better with two engaged parents regardless of the race, finances, or education of the parents. Unfortunately, too many of our kids are being forced to grow up without the love, support and protection of their fathers and this is something we should not allow to happen.

Absentee fathers have become an American epidemic that reaches across racial, economic, and ethnic lines. This epidemic continues to grow with little or no media attention or action. Currently around 25% of our children are being raised without their fathers and for minority children the numbers are as high as 75%. This is a national tragedy that will lead to the suffering of millions of children in this country.

As I look back on my own life and think about all of the men that I came into contact with and how each one had a part in shaping who I am today, I wonder who the children of today will have to help shape their lives? You see I was fortunate enough to have a father in my home and also to have responsible men in my community who showed me each day the importance of being a responsible man.

We are created to be male and female, but we learn to become men and women. We learn by watching others, so in the absence of teachers how will we learn?

The mission of FOCUS North America's ReEngage Program, the life-skills ministry of FOCUS NA, is to reconnect absentee fathers with their children and to reduce the number of absentee father homes by equipping and empowering men to fulfill their mission. What is that mission? To become the men that God created them to be.

Unfortunately, there are too many men today who are suffering from anger and frustration from the separation of their children. They have nowhere to turn for support, understanding and healing. Through the FOCUS NA ReEngage Program's curriculum we provide an opportunity for these men to get the support, training and tools they need to begin the healing process. If we are to improve the lives of these men and their families, we should help facilitate this healing process so we can begin to break the cycle of absentee fathers and provide a stable, loving environment for all of our children.

Using our 12-session curriculum we create an atmosphere of healing for the men to be able to address the issues of anger, manhood, overcoming obstacles and breaking the cycles that have kept them from achieving their goals. We begin with the basics of “what is a man” and “what men do” and finish with each participant developing a personal improvement plan to use as they move forward. The men provide support for each other and help each other to create a place where all have value and are respected.

I hope that each and every father had a wonderful Father's Day, but while we are celebrating fathers let us not forget there are many fathers and children whose hearts are filled with sorrow from separation, neglect, and pain.

The Holy Prophet Elijah prophesized in Malachi 4: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet. Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.

We need your help to begin this process of healing. Would you consider making a gift to the FOCUS NA ReEngage Program in the name of your father or some man who made a difference in your life?

Let us begin to give this epidemic the attention it deserves. If these children were suffering from some terrible disease or were the victims of some catastrophe we would stop at nothing to help them. Well, the epidemic of absentee fathers is just as devastating to our children, their futures, and our greater culture as well. All children deserve and need the spiritual, financial and emotional support of their fathers and today they need your help.

Thank you,
Rodney Knott
Director of FOCUS North America's ReEngage Program

Computer Lab Helps Those in Need Find Work, Housing

fgc-compWhen Mark was invited by a friend to attend the free community meal at FOCUS Gateway City, he ended up with much more than a full stomach. New to the St. Louis area, volunteers invited him to come to the computer lab and begin his search for work and housing.

“Now I’ve got a full-time job, a place to live and I am a full-time student,” Mark said.

The computer lab at the FOCUS Gateway City Center is available to guests who seek to find employment, housing, stay connected with family or develop necessary job skills.

“Many of the guests who come to use the computer lab are working on skill building,” said Eric Shanburn, Local Director of FOCUS Gateway City, said. “More than half of the people coming in need basic computer training, like using the Internet and email.”

Shanburn said that guests also work on resumes, search for jobs, and can check email for job leads and responses to applications. He wants people to come regularly so they can continue to build skills and see the job application process through.

“The guests will fill out five to ten applications each time they come in,” Shanburn said. “Once they get a response, we will coach them through their interactions with potential employers and work with them on their communication skills.”

Shanburn said he also will act as a reference if needed and make sure those who get work have adequate transportation or a means of getting to their new jobs.

“We have a few people who get jobs each month,” Shanburn said. “Mark’s is a real success story because he came to town with nothing and because of his own initiative and participating with our programs here, he has a place to live, a job and is even going to vocational school for more training.”

One challenge facing the homeless guests that frequent FOCUS Gateway City is the lack of consistent living conditions. Shanburn said that housing provides stability and without it, it is difficult for homeless men and women to find a job. He encourages the homeless guests to use the computer lab for finding housing.

Whether building skills, looking for jobs or doing housing searches, Shanburn said the computer lab is proving to be a valuable resource for FOCUS Gateway City guests in need.

FOCUS Gateway City Community Garden Offers Produce and a Place of Peaceful Reflection

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Volunteers worked tirelessly last Saturday to build the raised beds that would hold FOCUS Gateway City’s community garden. Three beds were built and planted and one more will soon be complete as well.

“We put the community garden in a vacant lot adjacent to the center,” Eric Shanburn, Director of FOCUS Gateway City, said. “St. Michael’s parishioners and several FOCUS Gateway City volunteers all pitched in and set up the garden.”

Shanburn said he hopes this small initial garden will only be the first step in transforming much of the green space around St. Michael Orthodox Church, which houses FOCUS Gateway City, into a productive garden for the community to enjoy and use. Many planters and pots will also be used to grow the flowers, vegetables and herbs for the community garden.

“We want to be able to use this garden in several ways,” Shanburn said. “First, we want to be able to use the produce from the garden in our free Sunday community meals. We want the cherry tomatoes on our guests salads to come from our own garden.”

Produce will also be handed out during the center’s food pantry hours, so that guests can enjoy fresh vegetables right from the center’s garden. Shanburn said he hopes that as the garden expands, people in the neighborhood will be able to work their own small plot in the garden.

“As the garden grows, I hope to have space to encourage some of our homeless guests to grow their own food,” Shanburn said.

Shanburn said they also hope to add a flower garden for community members to come and sit and reflect on the beauty of God’s creation.

“I want our community garden to be a place where people can grow food and also find rest,” Shanburn said. “I want it to be a place where people can come and connect with God surrounded by peace and nature and beauty.”

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FOCUS Orange County Receives Community of Faith Award

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

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ANAHEIM, CA (APRIL 3, 2011) — FOCUS Orange County was awarded the Community of Faith Award on April 3, 2011. The honor, which was endorsed by the California State Assembly was presented at the annual Festival of Hearts Luncheon hosted by Grandma’s House of Hope in Anaheim, California.

The luncheon is a way to honor community members and organizations who are making a positive impact on those in need in Anaheim.

“I was honored to accept the award on behalf of all the Orthodox churches who have united their efforts in serving the poor through FOCUS North America,” Jacob Lee, Director of FOCUS OC, said. “It really is due in large part to the hard work of local priests and volunteers who are providing the momentum and energy necessary to positively impact our neediest neighbors.”

Lee said FOCUS OC received the award because of its Back-to-School backpack drive for the motel kids at the beginning of the school year. Six parishes and the Los Angeles OCF participated in the drive which provided over 300 backpacks filled with school supplies to transitionally homeless children living in area motels.

FOCUS ReEngage Furthers Holistic Approach to Life Recovery

KnottFOCUS North America is blessed to have Rodney Knott join its ministry team. As the Director of FOCUS ReEngage and Gifts In-Kind Solicitor for FOCUS NA, Knott will implement the successful education, mentoring and counseling initiatives of FOCUS ReEngage in FOCUS Centers nationwide.

“The FOCUS ReEngage curriculum furthers the occupational initiatives of FOCUS through its job readiness and soft skills education, while simultaneously furthering the understanding component of FOCUS by incorporating fundamental life recovery elements,” Father Justin Mathews, FOCUS North America Executive Director, said.

Knott said he is looking forward to expanding the program in other FOCUS Centers. At the heart of FOCUS ReEngage is the rebuilding of people’s lives through education, mentoring, counseling, job training, and helping individuals develop their own sense of purpose.

“The nature of poverty that we are addressing today is different than it was in the past,” Knott said. “More than just a physical lack, today people have a real emotional and spiritual lack.”

Knott said that these emotional and spiritual needs require different solutions. “If we don’t address the emotional and spiritual needs, then the efforts we put forth to address the physical needs won’t change the long term outcome for people,” he said.

One of the purposes of the FOCUS ReEngage’s Man Class, a 12-week educational component of FOCUS ReEngage, is to redefine manhood. Knott said for many men, young and old, living in impoverished communities means a definition of manhood that embraces violence, conflict, idleness, negativity, abandonment, and a lack of desire to better oneself. “If we can help these young men understand what it means to be a man—How should I behave? What is my role in my family? What is my role in my community? How can I support myself?—We can help them change the outcome of their lives,” Knott said.

“We want these men to leave the 12-week program ready to get a job, with the skills to keep a job, and with the necessary life skills to further their own life development,” Mathews said. “The FOCUS Center is the perfect environment for this curriculum to be implemented in because it provides those we serve with an in-depth, holistic life recovery program.”

FOCUS ReEngage is a work readiness program that was developed in 2009 with ReEngage, Inc. and the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s School of Social Work. The program has seen many successful pilots in 2010 and has been endorsed by Congessman Emanuel Cleaver, II (D-MO). The FOCUS ReEngage program will eventually include a parallel curriculum to the Man Class for women. Mathews said the FOCUS ReEngage curriculum is built upon proven social work principles and a strong Orthodox foundation.

Part of the expansion of FOCUS ReEngage’s efforts will also include a secondary Man Class that will have a decidedly Orthodox Christian foundation. This second version will incorporate wisdom from the holy fathers, scripture and an Orthodox worldview, Knott said.

“The psychology of poverty for many amounts to an attitude that ‘nothing is possible,’” Knott said. “This is what we want to change for people. We want people to expand their dreams for what is possible. Empowered parents empower their children and then we begin to see communities change.”

FOCUS Appalachia Team Transformed by Serving Others

Bad weather and a last minute change of projects didn’t dampen the spirits of 21 FOCUS Appalachia volunteers who spent March 7-12 working and serving in the mountains of North Carolina.

The group of young adults from all over the Northeast set out from Pittsburgh with the vision to serve others and also to use the time together to reflect on their own spiritual needs.

Niko Petrogeorge, FOCUS North America National Ministries intern, was charged with planning and leading the trip. And although the group had planned on working together on outside home repair for a disabled couple, freezing rain dictated a necessary change in plans.

The group was rerouted to the Quiet Reflection Retreat Center in the mountains outside Asheville, North Carolina. The retreat center is run by a newly chrismated Orthodox couple who invite people to use the beautiful land and center for reflection and prayer. Badly in need of upkeep and repairs, the couple appreciated the efforts by the FOCUS Appalachia team, realizing that their hard work at the retreat center would benefit many people in the coming year.

In spite of the hard weather the group managed to erect a rock retaining wall to slow erosion, mulch, build needed chairs for the center, paint the inside of the lodge and much more.

“We realized after we arrived, that the retreat directors definitely needed our manual labor,” Petrogeorge said. “But they also needed the support of their Orthodox brothers and sisters too.” He said the couple participated with the group in the services, prayers, teaching and times of reflection.

“We had decided on the theme, Come and See, for the trip,” Petrogeorge said. “But the real theme of our trip ended up being about transfiguration. The trip really was about us saying ‘Thank you’. We went to serve, but we realized we needed to be there … It was good to be there. We were so grateful.”

Petrogeorge said the group quickly become friends and were great examples of Christ’s love to one another and the couple they were serving. He was impressed with the group’s willingness to serve and adapt to the change in projects.

“One of the young men who was with us wasn’t Orthodox,” Petrogeorge said. “He remarked after one of the services we had that he felt he had been selfish his whole life and he felt very challenged because he had never really experienced that type of love and community before.”

The FOCUS Appalachia program aims to provide meaningful short-term service and work projects for groups in the Appalachian Mountain region. Part of the FOCUS Appalachia experience also involves guided reflections, spiritual teaching, prayer and leisure time to enjoy the beauty of the mountains. Through prayer, work, teaching and time together, FOCUS Appalachia trips provide a holistic approach to retreat and service.

*If you or your church group wants to participate in a service trip with FOCUS Appalachia, please call Bryan Dahms, National Director of Ministries, at 866-267-3083 or email him at JavaScript required to view address. FOCUS NA will connect you with the appropriate project for your skills and budget and will arrange lodging, meals and other logistics.

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FOCUS Grant Enables Free Meals in Struggling Community

About a year and a half ago I met with several parishioners here at St. Michael Orthodox Church in Southbridge, Massachusetts to see if there was some way that we could aid in the relief of the economic situation in town. St. Michael is a small older church in the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese and really had never been involved in anything like this.

Southbridge is an old mill wn like many in Massachusetts.  However it is one of the most economically depressed towns

work_for_food in Central Massachusetts.  More than 12% of the 17,000 people are on unemployment and 15% live at or below the federal poverty limit.  Additionally, 23% of children under 18 hungry. We needed to do something.

We decided that we would begin a monthly community meal. Keep in mind we have never done this before and we did not even know where to begin nor how many people would show up. That first night we fed about 45 people and it has grown steady since that first night. We are very grateful to all of the folks that come and help us serve the meal it is just as important to them as it is to the folks that partake of the meal. The meal we serve has left a lasting impact on the entire church community.

Last fall we applied for a grant from FOCUS North America with the idea of expanding the meal from once a month to twice a month, looking toward a time that we would offer this meal once a week. January of this year saw our first twice-a-month meal and in February we had so many people that we actually ran out of food—and when I say ran out I am saying we had nothing! Luckily only the workers were unable to have something to eat and all of our guests were able to eat. One thing I have noticed is that people come and eat and now they hang around and chat over a cup of coffee and a pastry and catch up with friends and really look at this as a social time for themselves. It has truly been a blessing. If it was not for the generosity of the donors to FOCUS North America and the FOCUS Board we would not have been able to expand this program. In our own small way we are able to help some very needy people survive a very trying time.

May God Bless the work of FOCUS North America!

Fr. Peter Preble is the pastor at St. Michael Orthodox Christian Church in Southbridge, Massachusetts. Visit his website to learn more about his ministry.