AHI: Recognition of IOCC Long Overdue

NEW YORK – The American Hellenic Institute (AHI) is holding its 39th anniversary gala in Washington, DC on March 8, and is showcasing, among others, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) for its ongoing philanthropic activities worldwide, particularly on behalf of people struggling with economic hardship in Greece.

AHI President & Executive Director Nick Larigakis told TNH ahead of the highly- anticipated event that recognizing IOCC is well deserved and long overdue.

“AHI has tried to develop a tradition of honoring not just individuals, but also our community’s great organizations, for the good things they do. Over the years, we have honored organizations like AHEPA, the Order of Saint Andrew (Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate) and Philoptochos. And this year, we thought it would be appropriate to honor IOCC for its extraordinary work,” Larigakis said.

“We’re very happy to help showcase the magnificent work IOCC has managed to accomplish in such a relatively short period of time. They’ve been around less than 25 years, and they’ve already delivered well over $400 million in aid to people in more than 50 countries,” he said.

“That says it all right there,” he said, adding that recognizing an organization’s civic and philanthropic action also helps make a positive impact on overall public policy.

As it pertains to Greece and the Greek American community, Larigakis explained, IOCC’s philanthropic assistance to help Greek farmers recover from the wildfire disaster of 2007 and its current efforts to help feed the hungry in Greece are particularly noteworthy, “and here at AHI, we believe more people in our community, as well as Americans across the country, need to become more aware of what IOCC has done and continues to do so effectively. We want to help bring that to the forefront at this year’s dinner because IOCC reaches out to help alleviate human suffering all over the world. And the wider public, not just Greek Americans, should know more about all the wonderful work that IOCC does.”

AHI’s annual Hellenic Heritage Achievement & National Public Service Awards Dinner, widely considered one of the Greek-American community’s premier annual events, is a very good time and place to shed more light on IOCC, he said, underscoring that AHI is also very proud this year to honor Atlanta Bread CEO Jerry Couvaras; Timothy J. Maniatis, a well-known member of the Archbishop Iakovos Leadership 100 Endowment Fund and the National Hellenic Society; L100 Executive Director Paulette Poulos; and Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-NV).

AHI itself does not have a philanthropic component. Its mission is to advocate for public policy affecting Hellenic issues (e.g., the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus), and to explain how and why U.S. foreign policy on those issues needs to be more consistent with American principles, values, and ideals.

And by honoring Orthodox Christian organizations like IOCC – a Pan-Orthodox agency founded in early 1992 by retired Greek-American industrialist John G. Rangos Sr., himself a leading philanthropist who was honored by AHI in 2009 – AHI remains consistent with its efforts to intersect with all aspects of Greek- American society.

“Even though AHI’s main objective is to advocate for public policy issues, we don’t restrict ourselves to recognizing only members of Congress or people who advocate for public policy issues. We also honor businessmen, members of the arts and entertainment community, philanthropists and, obviously, organizations that promote noble causes,” Larigakis said, citing AHEPA’s National Housing Corporation, which helps support senior citizens nationwide.

“I often point to AHEPA’s housing program as a good example. AHEPA helps manage HUD-sponsored housing all over the country. That identifies the Greek American community and, by extension its organizations, not simply as a group that tries to help ‘its own,’ so to speak, but also as Americans who advocate for equitable polices for everyone; as a group that reaches out to help all people in need. In that sense, IOCC’s philanthropic work, which is not limited to Greek or Orthodox Christian causes per se, helps people we engage understand that we don’t work simply for or within the context of our own community,” he said.

IOCC VERY MOVED

IOCC Executive Director Constantine Triantafilou told TNH that he was “very pleasantly surprised and humbled” when AHI contacted IOCC, noting that IOCC was “very moved” to learn that AHI had been paying attention to IOCC’s philanthropic efforts for quite some time.

“The fact that AHI was looking at not just the current work we’re doing in Greece, but also at the work we did to help Greece dating back to the 2007 wildfire disaster, is very humbling. The fact that they have been paying attention to us is very moving to me personally, and also to members of my board. It reaffirms that the work we’re doing really matters. We don’t necessarily need to be reassured about our mission and how important it is, but it’s always nice to know others recognize and appreciate our efforts,” Triantafilou said, adding that it also helps reinvigorate the morale of IOCC staffers on the ground in various parts of the world.

“Our people in Greece, who are doing all the heavy lifting over there, felt very uplifted when we told them one of the finest Greek American organizations wants to acknowledge IOCC’s efforts not just in Greece, but everywhere else we try to help people. Staff in Greece naturally felt particularly grateful for AHI’s recognition,” he said.

For his part, Rangos said he is very pleased that IOCC has made so much progress, and that the agency is getting the recognition it deserves: “IOCC is an Orthodox Christian jewel. It is the Orthodox Church in action, and the Church in America’s gift to the entire world. It’s only fitting for AHI, one of our community’s leading activist organizations, to openly recognize IOCC, our community’s leading philanthropic agency, for all its tremendously effective charitable efforts worldwide,” he said.

WILDFIRE RELIEF

When the massive wildfire disaster struck Greece in August and September of 2007, it ended up burning more than 600 thousand acres, an area the size of Rhode Island. Triantafilou went to Greece for a firsthand look at the destruction. After getting over the initial shock – “To stand on the mountainside and see nothing but scorched earth for as far as your eyes could see was just mind-boggling,” he told the Herald at the time – he met with IOCC staffers in Greece to help identify a particular set of problems: fire extinguishing capabilities, soil quality and lack of food for farm animals.

IOCC helped set up a number of large water tanks throughout Greece so that Greek firefighters could have adequate supplies of water handy to combat future fires, as well as a soil lab to conduct tests on soil for future agricultural use because rapidly spreading flames had scorched vast tracts of Greece’s arable land.

IOCC also determined that many Greek farmers, who had lost tens of thousands of animals to the wildfires, were desperate to feed their surviving livestock, but couldn’t because the flames had consumed too much grazing land. Working with both the Greek Government and the Church of Greece, IOCC put together an effort that sent hundreds and hundreds of metric tons of animal feed over a sustained period of time, helping hundreds of farmers feed thousands of animals.

The Rangos Family Foundation helped that program get started by donating $200 thousand to help IOCC procure and distribute 250 tons of animal feed, and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America also raised millions of dollars for Greek fire relief, distributing most of it to IOCC for the effort.

CURRENT GREEK CRISIS

As to the current economic crisis in Greece, which has forced a large number of people into poverty, IOCC – in tandem with APOSTOLI, the philanthropic arm of the Church of Greece – has ramped up efforts to feed the hungry, providing funding for food cards people can use to buy fresh produce in Greek supermarkets which receive produce from Greek farmers.

At Rangos’ urging, IOCC started studying the growing need to help feed people in Greece more than two years ago. After receiving another matching grant from the Rangos Foundation, IOCC reached out to AHEPA and James Thomas of Chicago and worked with Leon Spanos of St. Louis to develop the fresh food program currently underway in Athens. An avalanche of grants soon followed:

AHEPA gave $100 thousand. The Archdiocese gave $150 thousand; The Hellenic Initiative gave $300 thousand; and the Jaharis Family Foundation pledged a $2 million challenge grant to help expand the program, and has already delivered the first $1 million.

Those grants have allowed IOCC to help APOSTOLI feed thousands of people a month. IOCC anticipates that 1.7 million people will benefit from access to fresh food, supplemental food assistance and medical aid over the next two years, and is aiming to ultimately deliver more than $8 million in aid with continued Greek American support.

“This is all about local procurement, buying almost 100 percent Greek commodities from Greek producers in Greece. It’s about feeding Greek families in need and helping the Greek economy at the same time. We’re teaming up with APOSTOLI, which is operating a food bank to help feed the hungry. IOCC is making it happen by coordinating the effort. We’re there to help provide human resources in terms of manpower and offer financial assistance to their program. APOSTOLI takes all donated bags of food to their food bank, sorts them out and distributes food to people in need. We provide funds for the food cards which people can use to buy fresh produce at their local supermarkets, and we help APOSTOLI register people who need assistance,” Triantafilou said.

Rangos pointed out that while the program has gotten off to a very good start, it will need continued financial support. “All the recent grants to IOCC’s food program in Greece clearly indicate that the Greek American community has confidence in IOCC’s ability to deliver much-needed aid. And I hope all the wonderful support continues to flow because it’s going to take a long time for Greece to recover from this horrendous situation,” he said.