Upper St. Clair man to direct social service ministry

By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Nicholas Chakos of Upper St. Clair, who has moved all over the globe to help some of the world’s poorest people, has become the national executive director of FOCUS North America, a 3-year-old Eastern Orthodox social service ministry.

“One of the things that attracted me to this job is how much they have been able to accomplish in such a short time,” said Mr. Chakos, 39, the son of the Rev. John Chakos, who recently retired as the longtime pastor of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon. While working for an international Orthodox relief and development agency, Nicholas Chakos also has taught graduate courses in nonprofit project management at the University of Pittsburgh.

“FOCUS is so far ahead of the curve in terms of both fundraising and project development, it’s amazing. If you look at their portfolio, you’d think they had been around for 10 to 15 years,” he said.

FOCUS, the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve, runs extensive social programs in seven cities, in addition to a housing repair program in rural Appalachia and a program to train youth to respond to the needs of the poor. Since 2009 its donor base has expanded from 1,700 to more than 10,000, and the next annual report is expected to show a significant rise in giving above the $880,000 reported in 2010.

Last year, a fundraising dinner featuring local supporters Troy and Theodora Polamalu brought in $62,000 to help launch a FOCUS center in the Hill District. The Polamalus’ www.tacklepoverty.org fundraising campaign for FOCUS has been a major source of new donors.

Though Mr. Chakos has commuted globally from Upper St. Clair for the past three years, he hasn’t been directly involved with the Hill District center. The graduate of Washington & Jefferson College had worked for International Orthodox Christian Charities, a relief and development agency, while serving as adjunct faculty at Pitt.

He founded the IOCC office in Romania, growing it from a one-man operation on a shoestring to a multimillion dollar agency with 53 employees, doing extensive work in child welfare and AIDS prevention. He then launched an HIV/AIDS program serving Ethiopia and Romania that cares for 20,000 AIDS orphans, assists 10,000 people infected with the virus and provides AIDS awareness training for 7 million people.

He takes the helm of a program founded by a parish priest, which is intended to model Orthodox spirituality without being evangelistic.

In 2011, its seven city programs served more than 50,000 meals and distributed more than 70,000 articles of clothing and 180,000 food pantry items.

“We also gave away more than $200,000 worth of household goods and a lot of love, because numbers don’t mean anything at all. What really matters is transforming people, both our volunteers and our guests,” said Charles Ajalat, chairman of the FOCUS board and a resident of Southern California. “We see the image of God in everyone.”

Meals are served at decorated tables by volunteers who act as waiters and later join the guests for dinner. In one case, a businessman who rather reluctantly became involved in delivering groceries to a man disabled by a stroke ended up taking the man to his own dentist and paying for him to get dentures.

In another case, a board member gave away his very expensive coat to a homeless man whom he met at a feeding center, Mr. Ajalat said.

While most FOCUS centers run standard programs such as meals and food pantries, each also seeks niches of unmet need in the community.

The Hill District center, which opened in July at 2228 Centre Ave., has stepped into two such gaps. On Fridays, local volunteers give backpacks filled with food to children on subsidized school lunch plans so they will have something to eat in homes that often have empty cupboards. The program started with 50 students at Weil Elementary School and hopes to eventually expand, said Paul Abernathy, the executive director.

Another program is document recovery, helping people obtain the birth certificates or photo identification that they may need to apply for a job or for government benefits.

“Some other agencies in the area that had been doing [document recovery] ran out of funds to do that, so they’ve been referring people to us,” he said.

Nationally, the goals of FOCUS include expanding to 100 cities, each center with an annual budget of $1 million and at least 100 volunteers. The FOCUS website is www.focusna.org.

Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.