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Reflections From Our Intern Gabe
This summer I was blessed to be an intern with FOCUS Southern California, along with three other interns. Whereas, in my last article, I spoke about our experiences working with several partner organizations affiliated with FOCUS (and we continued to work with these organizations throughout the summer), it seems even more important to highlight the incredible work being done by the Director, Irene Basdakis, along with Ellen Larkin and Bessy Ferrell in Southern California. They are organizing weekly food giveaways, diaper distributions, and connecting volunteers with other local non-profits working in food distribution. The scope of their work — how they serve hundreds of people every month — is certainly important to note here. However, it is the things that are done when no one is looking that define a person; and so, I feel compelled to share an intimate encounter I was able to witness that truly revealed the heart of their ministry.
Towards the end of the summer, Maria, Daniel, and I helped Ellen deliver a couch to a local family that she and Irene have known for some time now: the wife, Jess*, and her husband Darren*, moved from Egypt in 2016, and they now have three beautiful children all under the age of five. Jess has many health problems and experiences chronic pain. Jess had a stroke on her left side two years ago, which has severely impaired function on the entire left side of her body. Jess’s right eye is also impaired and is covered in bandages. (Jess worked as a nurse before the stroke, but now she is unable to work). Jess walks with a very significant limp, and it takes much of her strength just to carry one of her children; she is unable to do much physically and needs rest throughout the day, even though she tries to do more than she should. Jess’s husband, Darren, works the night shift, but during the day he helps out around the house any way he can (cooking, cleaning, caring for the children, etc.), and makes sure Jess does not push herself too hard.
It was a simple delivery; we placed the couch in the garage just beneath their apartment, and Jess spoke to us from the window of their apartment, expressing her gratitude. Jess held up her youngest child to the window to say “hi” to us. It was a short encounter — no more than a few minutes — but it was moving, nonetheless. Irene had told us that one day we could go over and meet the family more formally: “They’ve all been in that apartment for over a year, and Ellen and I are the only ones who visit them. They’d love to meet you guys.”
After our initial meeting, Maria made sure that all of us (interns) would be able to visit with Jess’s entire family for a longer period the next time we saw them. We set up a date to go visit: August 12, the second to last day of our internship. We met up with Irene and Mariam (a FOCUS volunteer) just outside of Jess and Darren’s apartment complex around 10:15 a.m. on August 12. We said our hellos, walked into the complex through a gate, and went up a set of stairs directly to our left to get to the apartment. We knocked on the door and were immediately greeted by Darren; he had a welcoming smile on his face, clearly overjoyed to see us.
Jess greeted us after we came in, and we were introduced to their three boys: Elijah*, Paul*, and Mark*. We were invited to sit down right away, Darren brought out a vegetable platter and offered us something to drink. There was a stillness in the room as Jess and Irene spoke in between short periods of silence. Jess told us how glad she was that we could come. I looked around and saw a large portion of one wall decorated with the colorful strokes of crayons or markers, stretching no more than three feet high. Children’s drawings were pasted on the wall near the window looking out onto the balcony, and there were several religious icons with depictions of Christ and pictures of Coptic Orthodox Church hierarchs throughout the room.
It was not long before Irene spent some time addressing Jess and Darren specifically, with Mariam translating from Arabic to English and English back into Arabic based on what Darren was saying (Darren spoke only a little English, but Jess speaks and understands English well). They needed to discuss details about their apartment situation.
As they talked, Daniel and I soon found ourselves playing toy cars with Elijah, the oldest, who was now opening up to us. When we arrived, he did not say anything and was acting shy; now, he went around the room racing and crashing his cars against mine and Daniel’s toy cars. Mark (the youngest, who can only walk a little on his own) was trying to join in where he could. Elise sat on the couch holding Paul (the second oldest), who seemed to be quite sound asleep despite numerous attempts to wake him up so he could play with us. Maria and Michael had gone out to bring us pizza for lunch.
After a couple of hours of crashing, flying, and racing, Elijah, Daniel, and I had to put our cars away since Maria and Michael came back with lunch. Paul had woken up by this time, so we each grabbed our share of pizza and sat down to eat and talk. During this time, Jess shared her story with us.
Jess related how she worked as a nurse for several years, but now with her health issues she could no longer work; she needs rest and care throughout the day. Jess’s health also makes it difficult for her to have much energy to play with her children, though she does all that she can. Far from appearing depressed or regretful that her life had been made much more difficult through the pain she was experiencing, Jess thanked God instead.
“God is my Protector. He is my Helper. He is my Comforter,” Jess said with a sincerity that made me want to hang on to every word she said. As Jess sat next to me, I could feel a warmth radiating from her, the kind of warmth born of a deep love. Jess spoke and moved with a gentleness, giving thanks to God in everything. I was convinced that there is nothing that could tear apart her love for God, be it sickness or pain or whatever else may befall her; it was a deeply moving experience.
Darren came over to us more than a few times throughout the conversation, offering us more pizza and insisting they would not eat many of the leftovers. When we would try to refuse, in light of our nearly jam-packed bellies, Darren would insist all the more with overwhelming hospitality. Darren also brought out snacks several times, making sure we did not leave hungry; it was a very kind gesture.
Jess began to talk about Irene while relating her blessings. “I call her my ‘guardian angel.’ It’s happened several times, where I think, ‘I should text Irene.’ So, I go to pick up the phone, and she’s already just texted me!”
Irene has been very involved in working with Jess and Darren for some time now. Irene and others have personally given them money (though Jess and Darren always try to refuse the money, they only accept because it is given on the pretense that it is for their kids). When there is a need for the family, Irene will often get in touch with friends and FOCUS volunteers—and the support has been overwhelming: “One person purchased a TV that the family mounted onto the wall. They did not have a TV. They will use the TV to play DVDs for the kids. Their microwave broke so another friend purchased a new one. The family needed shoes, so another friend purchased shoes. Another friend purchased clothes,” Irene recalled.
Last Christmas, Irene’s Church—St. Basil Greek Orthodox Church in San Juan Capistrano—delivered on an Amazon wish list for the family compiled by Presbytera Mia Tragus. As Irene recounted to me, the wish list “included clothing, bikes for the kids, games, toys, clothes, gift cards, and something for Jess and something for Darren. The cost of these items exceeded $1,000. In just a couple days, our parishioners had bought all the items on the wish list. Jess called me a couple days in a row, thanking me because the packages continued to be delivered to her apartment and the kids were beyond excited.”
Irene, Ellen and FOCUS Advisory Board member Joyce Kokkinides took Jess out for lunch one day and took her shopping at Ross afterwards to buy clothes, shoes, and other items for her and her family. When they would put items in the cart, Jess would take out some, not wanting to impose upon them. Right now, Irene is working with Jess and Darren on helping them stay in their apartment; their landlord has claimed that there should be no more than four people in their apartment and has threatened to kick them out soon. Irene has to push to make sure they receive the assistance they need; Jess and Darren are reluctant to ask for help.
As Jess poured out her gratitude concerning Irene, and spoke to us of keeping faith in God, she began to experience a bout of intense pain, softly moaning and swaying slightly and stiffly back and forth. I could have listened to her talk about the goodness of God for hours, but it was clear to all of us that Jess needed to rest for a bit. Maria came over to comfort her, and after a few minutes she seemed to be okay.
When we had finished eating lunch and talking with Jess, we took Elijah and Paul to the apartment complex pool. Elijah and Paul had only ever been to the pool two times since Jess is unable to really play with them outside due to her poor physical condition. The kids were visibly excited to have some new friends to take them to the pool. Maria, Michael, and Daniel hung out with Elijah as he swam around in his floaties from one person to the next, played basketball with his little floating basketball hoop, or just wanted to be held by someone while he was in the water. The joy on his face as he played in the water was priceless. Elise and I spent most of the time with Paul, who was not so keen on jumping into the pool for the most part, but he still enjoyed splashing us and trying to play water basketball outside of the pool. We would stay close to him while he sat on the steps of the pool, no more than half of his body in the water. Paul had a more reserved way about himself than Elijah, but he seemed to be enjoying himself and the company, nonetheless. Daniel, Elise, Maria, Michael, and I certainly loved every moment with Paul and Elijah. We spent about an hour and a half in the water.
Towards the end of our adventures in the pool, Jess and Daren came outside with Mark to join us. They spent a few minutes watching, smiling, before going back into the apartment. We joined them shortly after our swim and ate a lamb meal they had cooked for us. Though our stomachs were full of the pizza lunch earlier, and we had a dinner to go to afterwards, nevertheless, we tried to eat what was on our plates since it was a very good meal. Jess and Darren’s hospitality was unrivaled. Shortly after finishing our meal, we had to leave. Jess and Darren asked us if we could stay longer—which would have been wonderful—but we were going over to Irene’s for dinner that night.
It was hard to leave them after spending most of the day with the family and having felt so closely the love they give, and also knowing that it would probably be a long time before they would have visitors again. We had to bid farewell with a bittersweet goodbye, grateful for the time we spent together but sad that we would likely not see them again for a long time. (Irene later told us that Jess text messaged her after we had left, saying that Elijah asked, “Where did my friends go?”) But none of us will ever forget that day, nor the beautiful family we got to know.
It is not just the amazing love and faith in God that Jess and Darren exemplify in their lives that stands out so vividly to me, but also the role of Irene and the community around her in supporting the family. I asked Irene why the work they do at FOCUS is so important? Irene told me: “We all have our “ups and downs” in life. While I may be experiencing an ‘up,’ someone else may be experiencing a ‘down.’ This is life. We all need basic essential items, and we also need love. Sometimes the love comes from family and friends. Sometimes it comes from an acquaintance or even a total stranger. By seeing Christ in everyone we meet, it’s easy to want to share what we have with them, including ourselves. Maybe our work answers someone’s prayers; maybe God uses us to answer someone’s prayers. All I do know is it’s a privilege to be in a position to help others.”
I was able to personally see and experience this summer the love and the spirit of giving that Irene pours out through her work and in her own personal life: how she, Ellen, and Bessy work hard to organize the weekly food giveaways and the diaper distribution—providing these basic essentials to hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Orange County—and how they have helped Jess and Darren. Daniel, Maria, Elise, and I were blessed to be the beneficiaries of the care Irene unwaveringly gives to so many people. Irene made sure we had a good place to stay for the summer, set up our work schedule almost every week, and checked in on us frequently to ensure we were not lacking in anything, whether it was food, our apartment, or even the skill-sets we were gaining through our work. Irene wanted us to have a well-rounded experience and have us make the most of our internship; she certainly succeeded on all fronts.
Jess and Darren’s story is a beautiful example of the mission that is being carried out by FOCUS Southern California through Irene, Ellen, and Bessy. It is a labor of love from the heart, and it is FOCUS Southern California’s mission to reach out to people and show them God’s love by meeting their needs—whether it is something tangible like food, or whether it is going to see someone who is in pain and craves compassion and friendship. That is what FOCUS Southern California is about; they carry out the work that is so necessary in our communities today, and it is this kind of love that can move mountains.
*names have been changed to protect privacy