Over 500 youth from throughout the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago's six states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Indiana have traveled this year to Kansasville, Wisconsin to enjoy FANARI Camp at the St. Iakovos Retreat Center. Each has their own story of how they got to FANARI and distance they traveled. But 15 year old George from Tbilisi, Georgia, stands out.
George's mom works at one of the many Hellenicare facilities that have served all the citizens of the Republics of Albania, Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine. Hellenicare, a non-profit based in Chicago, was established by Andrew Athens in 1997 to provide healthcare in these impoverished former Soviet Union provinces.
Earlier this year she asked Dr. Charles Kanakis, who was serving as volunteer physician at the Hellenicare facility in Tbilisi, Georgia, about the possibility of her young son visiting America. Dr. Kanakis brain stormed with members of the St. Iakovos Retreat Center Board concerning the possibility of helping make this a reality.
Together, they recalled some funding which had been contributed for this type of purpose by the Andrew Athens trust. In recognition of the over $100,000 personally donated to the St. Iakovos Retreat Center by the Andrew Athens trust and much more raised by him for the facility, the St. Iakovos Retreat Center Board several years ago decided to place $20,000 in reserve as the Louise Athens FANARI Scholarships to allow them the resources to help youth in need of assistance enjoy time at FANARI Camp, with the name of the scholarship program in honor of Andrew Athens wife.
With assistance from this fund which covered his cost during his stay, and with his family covering the expense of his travel to get here, George has found himself at two weeks of FANARI.
I had the chance to sit with him and ask him during his final week about his experience. "It has strengthened my religion. Best experience of my life" immediately responded George. "The experience of living orthodox, being amongst so many loving our faith!"
Earlier this week, George had the opportunity to visit with Alex and Jackie Athens James thanks to St. Iakovos Retreat Center Board President Bill J. Vranas. Jackie is the daughter of the late Andrew Athens and lives in Lincolnshire, Illinois, and a parishioner of Ascension of our Lord Greek Orthodox Church.
"Dad always believed in providing funding for children, in investing in the youth" stated Jackie.
"The St. Iakovos Retreat Center Board has done an great job with the funding dad provided them" continued Alex. "Dad completely trusted them with this gift. And they have taken this gift and utilized it to the max."
Explaining the driving force behind Andrew Athens with his contribution, they mentioned his appreciation of John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and other great philanthropist with the idea of spending the first part of your life making money so you can spend the later half giving all your money away.
"I have often told individuals the only living Saint I have met was Andrew Athens" continued St. Iakovos Retreat Center Board President Bill J. Vranas.
When asked about highlights of his time at the St. Iakovos Retreat Center, George mentioned the athletics. "I learned to throw a spiral!" he gleefully exclaimed noting his new love of not only Football but also softball. "The happiness of everyone, the positivity, the openness of everyone here is amazing."
That last part struck me particularly. Every generation looks back fondly to past times when we had been happier, more positive, more open. Too often those of us immersed in the qualities that have made America great tend to miss these images alive today. Yet to this stranger amongst us from a distant land beyond our boundaries, it was refreshing to see that vision of America at it's best still alive in an individual witnessing it for the first time.
Asked about adapting to his fellow campers at the St. Iakovos Retreat Center, "Our love of our religion is the bond we share."
While the funding he provided the St. Iakovos Retreat Center was just a small part of the global generosity provided by Andrew Athens, and millions of citizens of the Republic of Georgia have and will continue to have their lives forever enriched by the blessings provided by Andrew Athens vision and foresight, this writer is honored to have witnessed the power this generosity has had to positively impact the life of a single individual.
While George will soon be leaving FANARI Camp and the St. Iakovos Retreat Center to return home to Georgia, this writer is convinced the memories of these two weeks will last with him forever. Furthermore, I can only speculate the impact this experience will have on his future and his interpretation of America and American Values. And that may very well turn out to be the greatest gift provided by Andrew Athens.