NEW YORK – Big things often begin when people question assumptions and look past what is apparent, and beyond their self-interest. Manny and Marina Katsoulas’ interest in helping people with disabilities began with their family’s need, but it didn’t end there.
Manny Katsoulas told The National Herald “We are the parents of a Down Syndrome girl,” and that early on they were not aware of others in the area. ”But we could not believe that was the case.” So they took action.
The couple had a conversation about it with Fr. Dennis Strouzas, the longtime pastor of the Church of the Archangel Michael in Port Washington on Long Island, and after they found families with similar needs, they decided “design a program to facilitate church attendance of special needs people.”
The result was a special Divine Liturgy that has been held one Saturday each month since 1990. After years of effort, their endeavor led to the establishment of a group home in 2008.
The coffee hour that followed the Liturgy helped the participants evolve into a family. “We also have a spring picnic and a Christmas party,” that knits people together, “and there is a group of volunteers…including children… who come simply because they like the program,” Katsoulas said.
Not only has the program added a special dimension to community but has generated crucial social acceptance of these people, who no longer feel alienated. “It’s a remarkable thing to see,” he said.
Although the program initially attracted only a handful of families, they stuck with it. By signaling that they were a permanent part of the community’s life, they eventually attracted 50 families. The program now has a bus that brings up to 15 families from as far as Astoria.
As much as parents appreciated the Liturgy, Katsoulas said “they told us they needed help with the ultimate problem: ‘What happens to my child when I am no longer able to take care of them.”
He told TNH that the new challenge was not an easy one, explaining that “Residential living requires a great deal of money and expertise, both of which we lacked.”
He responded by seeking out experts at social service agencies.
With their guidance, especially the Association of Children with Downs Syndrome (ACDS), a state chartered social service agency, they moved forward.
ACDS helped them obtain state funds and “they now operate the home we call Hellenos House in Wantaugh, Long Island,” which opened in 2008.
There are seven residents, who are brought to church every month. “That was part of the agreement we had with them,” Katsoulas told TNH.
There is a 24/7 staff and families and supporters provide financial assistance for quality of life matters beyond the basics the state agency – now called OPWDD – provides.
Members of the community also visit. This month Archangel Michael’s junior choir will host a pizza party.
the Philoptochos of the Direct Archdiocesan District pays for summer camp for the residents, including two week programs for special needs people at St. Basil’s Academy.
Other communities have inquired and Katsoulas is in discussions with various community institutions about opening more group homes.
COOPERATION THE CURE FOR COMMUNITY’S ILLS
The endeavor “has evolved into a multi-parish program that serves the needs of the area,” he said. “As it should be. No one community has enough individuals to sustain their own program,” adding the program is a model for other co-operative church activities, such as the bereavement program of St. Paul’s in Hempstead.
The spirit of cooperation they have fostered is the antidote to the fact that “we have created artificial barriers to common action despite the fact the in places like Long Island churches are very close together…They are investing an awful lot of money duplicating one another’s effort instead of cooperating. This program shows that cooperating works.”
The extraordinary things the Katsoulases are doing are founded on ordinary Greek-American life stories He and his wife Marina, whose roots are in Smyrna, have been active in the community since their teenage years in Astoria.
His parents are islanders. His mother, who came to the United States when she was seven, is from Mytiline and his father, who was in the restaurant business, is from Kythera.
Katsoulas has a warm spot in his heart for the first church he knew, St. George/St.Demetrios Church in Spanish Harlem.
In the 1970s the couple moved to Manhasset on Long Island where they became leaders at the Port Washington Church.
He earned master’s degrees in chemistry and business and eventually was vice president of the pharmaceutical division of the Pall corporation. He is a chemist by profession, retired now, but busier than ever. He knows how to make things happen, and inspiring others just by taking action that makes sense to him.