Meet the New Executive Director

In June of 2017, FOCUS North America welcomed Seraphim Danckaert as our new Executive Director. Danckaert graduated from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2007. Since then, he has held a series of roles in fundraising, strategic planning, and nonprofit leadership at three different organizations: Orthodox Christian Network, Princeton Theological Seminary, and St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Anne Danckaert, have five children and live in Detroit, Michigan.

Danckaert’s background in nonprofit leadership as well as his involvement in the Orthodox Church led to his desire to serve with FOCUS. Read on to hear more about his vision for FOCUS’ future.

Welcome to FOCUS, Seraphim! Thanks so much for sitting down with me today. Tell me how your first few weeks have been here at FOCUS.

It’s been an amazing experience to get to know the staff, the volunteers, the donors, and the clergy all over the country who are so dedicated to our mission. We have an incredible network of people in the FOCUS family. I’ve been spending most of my time traveling, introducing myself, and getting to know them and hear their stories. It’s been a real inspiration.

My favorite story right now is from when I visited the Orange County Summer Feeding program. It was a Tuesday, and the kids lined up to receive their lunches. Theo Morse, who’s running the program there this summer, was talking to some of the kids. He said, “Guys, in a couple days, on Thursday, we’re going to do something special. You remember how last week on Thursday we all made nachos together? Well, this week we’re going to make pizzas.” Their eyes got really wide, and one of the kids standing in the front thought for a second and said, “Is tomorrow Thursday?”

It’s a shock to a lot of people to discover that there are hungry kids who probably live only a few miles from their house. The reality is that wherever you are in the United States, there’s a kid just like that little boy in Orange County who doesn’t have enough to eat.

Why did you want to work for FOCUS? What in particular excites you about joining FOCUS supporters in the work that they already do?

For me, it really boils down to faithfulness, if I had to put it in one word. Jesus calls those of us who wish to follow Him to serve the poor. I really believe that if we look to the witness of Scripture and the early Church in particular, the message we see is really clear. When we as members of the Body of Christ do not prioritize our call to care for those in need, then we falter. We falter spiritually as individuals, we falter as families, and I think we especially falter as the Church. So if we wish to serve God, and if we wish to see His Church flourish here in America, we simply have to dedicate more energy, more time, more focus, and more financial commitment to helping the homeless, the poor, and those who are less advantaged in our communities.

I see FOCUS’ mission, the work that it does, being at the very core of the Gospel and the core of our identity as Orthodox Christians. FOCUS in particular is unique among human services charities because of its Orthodox character. There are a lot of great charities that provide food, or clothes, or housing, or jobs, or medical care to those who are in poverty in the United States. But FOCUS does those things in partnership with local Orthodox churches and volunteers. We work in partnership very intentionally so that the people we serve don’t just receive meals, but connect face-to-face with volunteers –  Orthodox people of all ages who feel called to serve.

That’s really where transformation happens. That’s what excited me about FOCUS, because I think that doing service with that model is a far more faithful way to serve someone in need. It’s far better for them; it recognizes their inherent dignity as a human person created in God’s image. And quite importantly for the Orthodox Church here in this country, it’s probably one of the most neglected facets of spiritual life and revitalization. If we’re not faithful to God’s very clear direction to make some kind of preferential option for the poor, then we’re simply not going to flourish.

Building on that, which seems to be the core and the mission of FOCUS, what do you as the Executive Director put forth as your vision for FOCUS moving forward?

I want to see FOCUS be a catalyst and a partner working alongside Orthodox churches all over the country to serve the poor in ways that respond to local needs.

There are a few aspects to that vision. One is that we’re looking to strengthen and multiply the efforts that already exist for philanthropic outreach within the Church. We believe that working together across Orthodox jurisdictions and in a more intentional way can have a greater impact. And then the second part of our vision is serving the poor in response to local needs. We don’t want to be another charity that’s doing the same thing, serving the same people with the same programs. When we come into a new area, we look first to the Orthodox community. What are they doing, and in what ways can partnership make their philanthropic work even more effective? Secondly, where is there a gap in the broader community’s efforts? Where is there a need in the local community that no other nonprofit is sufficiently addressing?

As FOCUS develops that mission, how can FOCUS supporters get involved and participate in their local communities?

If you happen to live in one of the cities where we have a very established Center – Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Minneapolis – then go visit and get involved as a volunteer if you haven’t already. If you happen to be in one of the four locations where we have smaller programs that are poised for expansion, that’s also a great opportunity. Those places are Columbus; St. Louis; Beaver Falls, PA; and Orange County, CA. We have four very established ministries with a variety of really amazing programs and substantial volunteer opportunities as well as four more junior centers, you could say, where there’s a lot of potential for the future. God-willing, they will become significant ministries in the next year or two.

If you live elsewhere, get in touch with us about hosting a service event in your city or your parish. We have a variety of programs that might be able to come to your town. We do have operations in multiple cities where we don’t have centers, so it’s possible that we could do something with you wherever you are.

Do you have any final thoughts for FOCUS supporters?

We are stronger together. We can do more together, and we can witness to the vitality and faithfulness of the Orthodox Church with far greater clarity if we work together. I think that’s important, because there are many churches and philanthropic organizations within the Orthodox community that are already doing great things. But I think we can do so much more and be such a greater witness if we find ways to build deeper partnerships.

By Addie Pazzynski, Communications Assistant

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.