Welcome to our interns Daniel, Elise, Gabriel, & Maria who are joining us from Project Mexico and St. Innocent Orphanage! We are so excited to have our fabulous interns serving with FOCUS this summer and with our wonderful nonprofit partners. Read Gabe’s update below:
It’s been over two weeks since we arrived at our apartment in Santa Ana, four interns all from different parts of the country but now together to serve in Orange County for the summer. I flew into LAX at 10:00 pm on a Sunday night and got picked up by my three fellow interns—Daniel, Elise, and Maria—almost an hour later. We made it back to our apartment in Santa Ana when it was nearly midnight, with no set plans for the next day and the whole summer ahead of us.
These past two weeks have been a whirlwind of almost constant activity and unexpected joy. At the outset we were all at a loss as to what exactly we were doing here: somehow, for a reason God had placed each of us here intentionally, but none of us knew at all what this summer would look like. We did not really know the jobs we would be doing, the people we would meet, or even how we would all get along. The sweetest surrender though is letting the Holy Spirit lead us in the way that we should go, and so, we have been blessed with the opportunity to serve at several different ministries throughout Orange County.
After a first week of exploring the area, doing online training, and attending the Patristic Nectar conference in Riverside with some familiar friends from Project Mexico, we began our first week of work at Family Assistance Ministries (FAM) in San Clemente. FAM is a non-profit that provides food and some household items to families in need in Orange County, as well as shelter, and financial counseling and assistance. We spent two days there sorting through and organizing food items, stacking banana boxes, scooping dog food into bags (just another great part of FAM, that they look out for our canine friends as well), and—probably my favorite part—getting to ride in the big trucks to pick up food from the local grocery stores.
I was taken with the people mostly, though: for example, some of the volunteers who come consistently and bring joy with them. Elise and I rode in a truck with a man named Jerry, who was a driver for UPS for 20 years before eventually going back to school, getting a degree, and working his way up to become the President of operations in the United States for UPS. He was offered an even higher position—his dream job—but turned it down so that he could stay with his wife in California. Jerry told us that he was consumed with work for a long time, but now that he is retired he wants to give back—and he does, volunteering with FAM each week.
The staff at FAM were also an incredible group of people. Daniel, Maria, Elise, and I were mainly directed by Samantha, the Warehouse Assistant. Samantha started out as a volunteer but now is full-time staff. She is a devout Christian, a self-described woman of deep faith, and this is reflected in the kindness she shows to volunteers and the joy she exudes. Rachel, the Volunteer Coordinator, started at FAM shortly before COVID hit and worked tirelessly with Samantha to fill the need—with many families falling into dire circumstances overnight—while volunteers were in short supply. I was amazed to see the love these two have for the people they serve and for what they do, and I was inspired to hear their stories of how God’s providence has been working in their ministry.
One of our next destinations was We Help, a non-profit run out of Christ the Good Shepherd Coptic Orthodox Church in Long Beach that gives out food and clothing to people in need. We bagged up the food before setting up a table directly outside of the kitchen to give it all out to the line of people waiting along the street corner. We got to interact with the people—families small and big, old and young, homeless or simply in difficult situations—while we gave them food and sometimes helped them carry it to their cars. It was a beautiful and meaningful experience, to be up close and personal with the people we serve, to see them face to face.
It was here that we met Anthony, a volunteer for We Help and member of Christ the Good Shepherd, who shared with us his story of Christ in his life. Years ago, Anthony successfully ran his own business and had his own family. Within a short span of time, though, his life started to fall apart: his mom died, his business started to fail, and his wife left him and took custody of their son. He was depressed and began drinking to cope. After a night of binge drinking he blacked out for two days and woke up in the hospital. When he woke up after having hit such a low point, he took this as an opportunity from God to restore his life. He had been a Christian all his life but had never felt a very close relationship with God; now, though, he has turned his life around and has made a point to strengthen his relationship with Christ, living out his faith as an example to his son, who he is now close with and is raising him in the Church. As Daniel and I spoke with Anthony, I could see how his eyes were filled with light and could feel the peace coming from inside of him. It is a beautiful reality that we can meet people in so many different situations and see the grace of God pouring out in their lives. Hopefully this will help us to see God’s grace in our own lives.
Our time in Orange County has also led us to work with Saddleback Church two Wednesday’s in a row at their drive-thru food distribution, where we have helped assemble and load boxes and bags of food for families in need; Giving Children Hope, where we bagged food and broke down and reassembled pallets of household items in their warehouse (in two days we cleared almost an entire huge room that was filled with pallets; a time lapse video of this process would be mesmerizing); and last (but certainly not least), FOCUS, where we helped take inventory and organize items.
In our spare time, we (the four interns) have gone whale watching with our friend from Project Mexico, Thomas Ingram (no big whales spotted, but we did see a pod of dolphins swimming right next to us), attended family gatherings of our friends (we have shown up to two parties now where we are the only non-family members and so we attract a lot of interest, it’s fantastic), and explored some of the main spots around the area. We have lived in close community, spending almost all of our time together. We pray together every night, cook for each other and eat all of our meals together, do book discussions, and do most of our outings for groceries and such as a whole group. Everyone steps in (or sometimes more accurately, jumps in) to make breakfast or dinner and to help clean up. I am in awe of the hearts of love and service that I am surrounded by every day.
We have been blessed to be under the direction of the Director of FOCUS Southern California, Irene Basdakis, who has arranged for us to volunteer with all of these different organizations and has been incredibly sweet and hospitable in making sure we are taken care of and getting the best possible experience during our internship. And we have been blessed to work with Ellen Larkin from FOCUS as well, another wonderful woman who has been a dear to us interns.
There is so much to take in, yet it has hardly been two weeks. God has been so merciful in bringing me here, to Santa Ana, and placing me with three wonderful people who have shown me what love in action looks like. Every day is a new start to shaping our lives in alignment with the will of God, from serving those in need to serving each other. I do not know what the rest of the summer will look like, but I know that God will put us where we need to be, and I know that His plan for each of us is more than we could imagine.
FOCUS Orange County is a local center of FOCUS North America, a national 501c3 nonprofit organization.
Hi Gabriel, Thanks to you for this great writeup of your first two weeks, it is wonderful work that you and your 3 fellow interns are doing, touching the lives of many, doing God’s work and ministry to those in need. It sounds much more diverse and fulfilling than I had imagined. I have made a recurring monthly donation to support your work, not a lot, but to help you get closer to your goal. God bless you and your work with FOCUS in Orange County this year!
That means a lot, thank you so much Raphael! I’m really grateful for all the support/prayers I’ve been getting from you and the St. Paul community!