[Ancient Faith Radio; January 1, 2009]
F: Today I’m in Towson, Maryland, in the offices of the IOCC, International Orthodox Christian Charities. When was IOCC founded?
Nick: It was founded in 1992, sixteen years ago.
F: I’m speaking to Nick Chakos, Development Officer, in Nick’s office here at IOCC. I’m a proud momma because my son Stephen has begun working here recently, and I’d never been to these offices before, even though it’s just around the beltway; you’re north of Baltimore, only about a half-hour drive from me. I’m really glad to be able to see this place. I’m sure there are some listeners who have never heard of IOCC, or might have heard of IOCC but don’t have a clear idea of what IOCC does. I was surprised to find that it’s a much broader outreach than I was aware of. I thought you did lightning-strike work, like the Red Cross—you go in, do emergency supplies, and go out again. But you get much more involved in the life of the community. Tell me a little more about that, and some of the places where IOCC is working.
N: Well we do a lot of projects that are the lightning-strikes, the emergency response programs, especially after things like hurricane Katrina here in the United States; IOCC was there helping people immediately afterwards. But the majority of our work is in long-term, sustainable development overseas in countries, really working with families and individuals to help lift them out of poverty. One of the cornerstones of IOCC’s beliefs and mandate is that, when we go into a community, we stay with that community and address all the needs the people have, to effectively bring them out of poverty. We don’t go into a country and try to just feed people today or give them medicines today to get over an illness, but we work with the community to really move them from an impoverished lifestyle where they depend on handouts to a place where they can really survive and sustain their families.
F: Is the trigger usually a crisis? There are many places where for decades they’ve been in bad shape. Is it usually a crisis that causes IOCC to go to a different and new place?
N: It doesn’t have to be. The way IOCC started was in direct response to a crisis back in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union. There were hundreds of thousands of Russians who were starving and had no heating fuel in the winter. IOCC was created by a number of concerned Orthodox Christians and hierarchs to respond to that crisis, helping people with food and heating fuels and things like that. From there we developed into more programs to lift families out of poverty. And now, sixteen years later, we have all this experience and all these wonderful staff members who have experience and a history of running these sorts of initiatives. We also have countries now that don’t have an immediate emergency but have long-term ongoing problems. Ethiopia, Syria, or Jordan have portions of their populations that struggle with poverty and have no way out. IOCC is there to help them get higher-sustaining jobs that pay a living wage. IOCC helps educate their kids so they can go get jobs to help support their families. It’s really about taking the blessings we’ve been given by God and extending them to others so they can stand on their own two feet.
F: It sounds like in many cases there’s no viable economy, and you have to go in at the grassroots and build another layer so people can find a way to survive.
N: It’s like that in a lot of places. In Ethiopia it’s very difficult for farmers to grow their products and take them to a market somewhere—roads are poor, or maybe they don’t understand that if they take it to the city they can get a much higher price and a higher income. Our local partners (generally churches) help develop those market roots. Every country that we work in, we respond to the problems in that particular country.
F: That brings up one more question. IOCC in particular pinpoints countries that have an Orthodox tradition or some indigenous Orthodox living there.
N: Most of the time, but not always. I would say the majority of our work is done in countries with an Orthodox population. Again, being a Christian organization and a witness to Christ’s commandment to serve all people, we don’t put restrictions on who we help. We help Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Orthodox countries and non-Orthodox countries. In Southeast Asia when the tsunami hit, we had huge projects in Indonesia and Thailand; there are some Orthodox people there, but no one would go so far as to call Indonesia and Orthodox country, or even a country with an Orthodox minority. We believe that Christ didn’t call us to ask for people’s passports in order to provide assistance. We will provide assistance anywhere we can add value to the lives of people.
F: And you’re sponsored or recognized by SCOBA? How is that phrased?
N: We’re the official humanitarian aid organization of SCOBA, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America. Everything that we do, we do under the blessings of SCOBA and the Orthodox hierarchs here in the United States.
F: Tell me about these two photographs on your wall—they represent stories or experiences the IOCC has had. The one right above me has a little boy taking a sip from a cup, and it looks like someone is standing and counting out pills. Perhaps a very rudimentary pharmacy has been set up? Tell me about this.
N: This picture was actually taken in a hospital in Bucharest, Romania. I lived in Romania for three years implementing IOCC’s programs. This hospital is unique because it was a hospital specifically for children who were HIV positive or had full-blown AIDS. So the boy you see in the picture, Kalim, had full-blown AIDS, and he’s receiving his daily anti-retroviral treatments.
I keep this picture on my wall to remind me of what we do here at IOCC and why we do it. This boy received these treatments that kept him alive through the generosity of some pharmaceutical companies and the Romanian government. What happened, as often does in a lot of international trade policies, the pharmaceutical companies stopped donating these medicines to the hundred children in this hospital because of different trade and patent regulations. As soon as the drugs stopped coming in, all these kids went off of the medications and a number of them ended up dying. These were kids that IOCC helped for a long time, but once big companies and governments get involved and things come down to dollars and cents, people suffer.
F: That’s true. If it was just a matter of needing a blanket or shelter, that’s not so hard to provide, but when it comes to these modern drugs that are worth so much money—and with nations in conflict with each other, that can be a whole lot harder to deal with. He’s holding a transparent cup with a teddy bear on it and drinking his medicine, which I guess has been mixed with the water or juice, and the expression on his face is just so touching. He looks like a worried child, a child who has the burdens of the world upon his shoulders. We might be tempted to think in lighthearted terms about this work but this is a reminder of how serious it is in nations all over the world. How about this other one?
N: This other picture on my wall is one of IOCC’s first projects; on the left you see an elderly woman who’s wrapped up tightly in an overcoat and winter ski hat. She’s hunched over a white metal bowl. There’s a man on the right of the photo who’s pouring out a big cup of soup from a big pot into the bowl. This picture was taken in the republic of Georgia; our project was a soup kitchen opened specifically to provide hot meals to elderly people. These people had survived on a pension from the old Soviet government, but when the government collapsed, they had absolutely nothing. They would often go days through the hard winter months with no hot food. This was one of IOCC’s first projects, to look at the most vulnerable people in the society and bring them food.
F: It must be a challenge just to do that kind of research and come to a decision about where the greatest need is. It must take very deep knowledge and analysis of each community as you come into it. How do you do that? Do you use local people?
N: That’s another great thing that IOCC does really well; we rely on our local people and on our local Orthodox Churches and staff to communicate those needs. We don’t want to be the know-it-all Americans who come in and say, “This is what you should do, and this will solve all your problems.” Before we go in, we learn about the community. We talk to local people and get a deep understanding of why they’re in the situation they’re in. We listen to them first and ask, “What do you think you need to make your lives better?”
All the programs we do work with local communities, to make sure they have ownership in the activities we implement and the programs we have. That’s the only way you’re going to help people; when they feel they’re involved from the start. It’s not a successful formula when we come in as outsiders and say, “Do this and then you’ll be okay.” We always try to listen to the local people.
F: This may be a sensitive subject you can’t talk about, but I know that in some nations the government opposes outside groups coming in to help. They have a stranglehold on something; they’ve got the poor under their heel and they don’t want to see them helped. Have you had occasions like that when you’re being actively subverted or opposed by the people in power?
N: Thank God, no. I think it’s because of our approach; we always work from the inside out. I don’t remember any major instance where we were looked at outsiders coming in. It’s local people going to local officials addressing local problems, with the expertise of IOCC staff in certain areas. Of course, there’s also the money we’re able to raise from different Orthodox communities, government grants, and things like that.
F: There are certainly stories that are very encouraging; you’ve seen some wonderful things happen. But weighing on your heart all the time I’m sure is what you’re not able to do yet, because IOCC doesn’t have the resources to reach everywhere it needs to be. I’m sure IOCC does just a portion of what it would like to do, because you just don’t have the resources you need. Is there a place in particular where you wish you could do more than you’re able to do right now?
N: There are so many places; everything tugs at your heartstrings. That’s probably the most difficult thing about this job: there’s so much need all over the world. It’s impossible for me to say there’s one place I’d love to go and work. There are a dozen places I’d love to go and work. I lived for a number of years in Africa; there are terrible things going on in the Republic of Congo and Angola, in the Balkans, Moldova, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania. If I was to be given a bucket of money tomorrow there’s no shortage of places I could go spend it.
The hardest thing in the world is to have someone come up to you and say, “I need help,” and you can’t give them anything, because we have our hands tied by something simple like lack of money. I would think lack of money is a very simple problem, but it’s not as easy as we’d like.
F: And there are plenty of calls for money in all directions, especially as we’re in a credit crisis in the United States where people have acquired more things than they can pay for. It’s an ironic and bitter paradox to think how much people have acquired that is superfluous. I was just watching a movie called “Maxed Out” about the credit crisis, and it showed that card companies prefer people to fall behind and stop making minimum payments, because then they can get $2 for every $1 owed. All that money could have gone to something so much more worthwhile.
How do you keep this awareness from crushing you? How do you release it at the end of the day, so you don’t go on feeling overwhelmed by the need?
N: It’s hard. Everyone who works here has a personal outlet. For me it’s going home and playing with my kids, thanking God I have four healthy, wonderful children. Thank God for that. That’s what keeps me going. God has blessed us enough for today. I don’t know about tomorrow, but today we’re okay. That’s also the thing that drives me; looking at them and seeing them smile. It really pains me to know there are millions of kids out there who aren’t smiling; my kids have the blessings, and every child should have those blessings.
F: How can listeners find IOCC and make a donation?
N: You can always find us on our website: www.iocc.org. We have a toll-free number: 1-866-803-IOCC. Another great thing about IOCC is that we’re a very small, personable organization. Call us, we’ll answer any question you might have, and we’ll tell you about what we’re doing. Come visit the office, we’ll show you things first hand. It’s very easy to find us. E-mail, website, telephone call…
F: It’s amazing what you do with a small office. It’s not a glamorous setting, it’s not a very big staff, but you’re doing good work all over the world. And it’s all done with a concentrated group of very devout Orthodox Christians who really give their lives for it, and others who have been sent by IOCC to nations all over the world. Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wish I had, or anything you’d want to add as we close today?
N: You have so many dedicated people working here, and it’s not a glamorous office here; our furniture is second-hand. The greatest thing about IOCC is that 92 cents of every dollar given to IOCC goes to our beneficiaries.
F: That’s really amazing and unprecedented in the world of charity.
N: It’s a rate that hardly any other organization can match. That’s what we do. We save as much money as possible; we believe in being good stewards of the resources people give us. We don’t believe in wasting any money because it’s just more money taken away from the people we serve.
F: That’s a beautiful testimony. Thank you so much, Nick. I hope you hear from many of my listeners.
N: My pleasure. Thank you, Frederica.