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. 

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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.

Merry Christmas from FOCUS

This Christmas, we remember that Christ comes into the world with no place to lay his head. We know that at the hour of his
birth Mary and Joseph are far from home, and must rely on the mercy of strangers to shelter them in their hour of need. A manger – literally a feeding trough for animals —becomes the cradle of the King of Kings. The creator of the universe comes into the world humbly and to serve.

Everyday at FOCUS North America, we encounter families in need. Some come to us seeking shelter. Others are in need of food and clothing. That’s why we strive to remember the Nativity story not just during Christmas, but throughout the year. We look to see the humble Christ child in everyone we serve—the homeless, the poor, the hungry, the sick.

Thank you for all the support you’ve shown to FOCUS and those we’ve served this year.

Merry Christmas,

Nicholas Chakos, Executive Director

Renovation Angel donates $100,000 to nonprofit FOCUS North America


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“We recycle kitchens and repurpose them for the greater good. Not only because it’s an eco-friendly and savvy way to renovate, saving homeowners thousands of dollars on their renovation projects, but because contributing to the vital work of charities like FOCUS is one of the most worthwhile endeavors an individual or organization can aspire to,” said Steve Feldman, President of Renovation Angel.

Click HERE to read The Daily Ardmoreite article from November about the Renovation Angel’s support of those FOCUS serves.

Press Release: FOCUS North America & Shower To The People

FOCUS North America, the founding sponsor of the Shower to the People program, and the Missouri- based charity Shower to the People, Inc. announce that the program will no longer be affiliated with FOCUS. Starting in November 2016, Shower to the People, Inc. will independently run the Shower to the People program, which provides mobile showers and other hygiene solutions to homeless people in St. Louis.

FOCUS North America, a faith-based national charity that provides services to the homeless and working poor, hired the innovator of the “Shower to the People” concept, Jake Austin, in October of 2015 and sponsored the development of the mobile shower program. In the following months FOCUS supported the research, fundraising, marketing, regulatory approvals, and capital outlays needed to outfit a box truck capable of bringing hot showers to the most isolated of homeless individuals in St. Louis. The shower truck started operating in May 2016, with Austin at the wheel. It was enthusiastically received by the community and has generated interest beyond St. Louis.

Austin has been assisting the homeless in a volunteer capacity for years, and his work with FOCUS enabled him to realize his dream of going to those who live on the streets to most literally bring showers to the people—and to help provide dignity and hope to those in need. “I’m grateful to FOCUS for all the support they’ve given me this past year and I’m excited for the future of both organizations moving forward,” said Austin. Austin plans to continue this work through Shower to the People, Inc. FOCUS North America is pleased to have been the founding sponsor of this important program.

FOCUS and Shower to the People, Inc., agree that delivery of hygiene services to the homeless is a critical need but have concluded that they will better serve their respective missions as two separate organizations.

Both FOCUS and Shower to the People, Inc. look forward to continuing to serve those in need. Find out more about Shower to the People here: www.showertothepeople.net

Find out more about The Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve (FOCUS North America): here: www.focusnorthamerica.org

FOCUS is committed to supporting the development of innovative and sustainable solutions to poverty. FOCUS, which also is known as the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve, works to bring together communities, parishes, and partners nationwide in ways that maximize widespread volunteer engagement through hands-on activities that unite the giver with the underserved to help transform all of our lives and break 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.

Young Adults Offer Assistance To St. Herman’s House of Hospitality in Cleveland

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“Following in the footsteps of Sts Cyril and Methodios, and demonstrating in concrete action their renewed commitment to hands-on missionary work, the National Senior ACRY (American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Youth) has organized a small weekend mission and service weekend at St. Herman’s House of Hospitality in Cleveland, Ohio”

Click HERE to read the OCN article from August about the Orthodox Youth Service in Cleveland.

In Pittsburgh Neighborhood, Development Starts With Healing

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FOCUS Pittsburgh began a conversation about community trauma about five years ago, according to Director Rev. Paul Abernathy.

“We really began to ask are we healthy enough to sustain opportunity. People get jobs, they lose jobs; they get housing and lose housing,” Abernathy remembers. “It was really an incredible moment because what had happened, people had shared such incredibly raw stories, it essentially de-stigmatized the issue,” he says.

Click HERE to read the Next City article about the Trauma-Informed Community Development Initiative.

Back To School the Right Way

Everyone knows the building anticipation as the kids get ready to go back to school. There’s excitement and nerves, eagerness to start a new year, sadness that summer is ending. Unfortunately, counting down the days to a new school year is yet another reminder of struggle for many kids across the country. Imagine how excitement would turn to trepidation if going back to school meant a supply list filled with items that mom and dad couldn’t afford, sneakers from last year that don’t quite fit, and hand-me-down clothes from older sibling that leave you feeling less than confident.

It’s hard to for struggling families to prepare for a successful school year when they are in the midst of crisis. Wherever homeless families end up staying, if it’s not a permanent, sustainable home, the children suffer incredibly from constant displacement and insecurity. If parents can’t afford a place to live, how will they equip their children with the supplies necessary to attend school?

image1FOCUS North America’s Back to School program involves parishes across the country in providing high quality backpacks, school supplies, and clothing to children when it is time to return to school. FOCUS works closely with school workers in every community to ensure that donated items are given to the kids who are experiencing homelessness, living in hotels, or doubled up with friends or family.

A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that there is no jurisdiction in the United States where a working family of four, earning the poverty threshold wage of $24,000, can afford even a one-bedroom home at fair market rates. This means that there are struggling families in your town. Even if the poverty is not always visible, it is always present.

FOCUS needs you to help meet these basic needs, and take the stress off of many hardworking families that are already stretched thin. Help us give kids everything they need to get back to school and succeed in acquiring an education.

FOCUS will send participating parishes high quality backpacks with a packing list of items to fill them with. Filled backpacks will be collected at the parish. Through our school district partnerships, FOCUS will ensure the backpacks and supplies are given to the kids with the greatest need in your own city.

If you know your parish, SOYO, church school, women’s group, or other group would love an opportunity to bring FOCUS’ Back To School program to your town, contact us today! This is a great opportunity for groups that regularly work with FOCUS, as well as new communities who may be just figuring out the best way to serve.

Redevelopment effort in Hill District targets effects of long-term trauma – FOCUS Pittsburgh in The Post-Gazette

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 10.16.03 AM“Trauma-Informed Community Development grew out of research that found underlying causes of violence, homelessness, joblessness, poverty, addiction and abuse in exposure to chronic emotional stress and trauma. The premise is that if people can get help digging out from trauma and start to heal, they can get their own traction to improve their relationships, the well-being of their block and what happens on it, Rev. Abernathy said.

“Trauma is the most challenging problem we have” in the African-American community, he said. “We are seeing people get jobs and lose jobs, get housing and lose housing, not because they are stupid or bad but because they are wounded. We want them to be healthy enough to sustain opportunities.””

Click HERE to read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from this past Sunday about the Trauma-Informed Community Development Initiative.

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FOCUS Backpack Program on OCN

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Helping kids go back to school on the right foot

Imagine how excitement could turn to trepidation if going back to school meant a supply list filled with items that a family might not be able to afford. Your parish can sponsor backpacks for children in your community!

How does it work?

FOCUS will send you as many brand-new backpacks as your parish can commit to sponsoring. Parish families will take the backpacks home and fill them with supplies on a packing list included in the backpack. Also included in the backpack is a $10 donation envelope to FOCUS to cover the cost of the backpack.

Once filled, parishioners return the packs to church and the coordinator delivers them to a local FOCUS partner that works with children in need.

E-mail JavaScript required to view address to get your parish involved this August!

We hope to work with you and your local schools this fall!