Racing the setting sun, we scurried down Thessaloniki’s veins in search of the perfect souvenirs. Convenience stores were swarmed, pharmacies flooded, cafes crowded. In the heat of this serendipitous rush, I looked for some sort of affirmation in the reflections of the city’s snow globes and edges of its fancy fridge magnets. I craved some sense of accomplishment, the kind one usually gets when buying ornate souvenirs, the kind that gives you a “wow what a trip” sort of smile. But whatever I was searching for, it was already there, more than it had ever been in any nick knack store across the world.
Who knows, maybe it was because I finally got to use my plethora of My Big Fat Greek Wedding quotes in one week. But when I thought back on this trip in that moment, and still now, all I could think of was not the impressive sights but rather the overflowing waves of love.
Real Break Thessaloniki was incredible to say the least. Saying it was the best way I could’ve spent my spring break is still under-selling it. Words can’t describe what it’s like to walk in the footsteps of great saints, seeing the marketplace where St. Paul spoke to the Thessalonians, the river bend where he baptized the first European, and the cave where St. Gregory Palamas spent five years of his life praying to God to light up the darkness in his spiritual life. Seeing the struggles our faith has endured come to life in these 1500-year-old churches and monasteries once transformed into mosques now standing as strong as ever was so deeply inspiring, and talking to living icons of Christ was even more so.
From Nobel peace prize nominees saving the souls of prisoners to priests turned robotics coaches giving Greece’s most underprivileged community and children a chance at a better life, Christ’s love was manifest everywhere. Having returned from this magical place, where churches filled every other block and love saturated the air, I can definitely say I came back with something I didn’t have enough of before.
Taking in this “real break” from the stress of senior biochem electives, the medical school application process and just the daily race we’re so immersed in here in America, I’ve definitely been able to refocus on what’s important in this life and have made some amazing friends in my fellow Real Breakers who came all this way looking for the same thing.
I’m so glad I said yes to the Thess and can’t wait to see next year’s Real Breakers fall deeper in love with His love on this trip, too.
Naim Mekdessi is a third-year Biochemistry major minoring in Chinese and Medicine & Society at the University of Houston and is proud to call himself a member of Houston’s huge OCF chapter. In his free time, Naim likes to learn new languages. With six already under his belt along with a couple of Chinese tongue twister awards, he can’t wait to go explore the world some more and maybe learn a new tongue or two in the process.
I remember when I was going on college visits with my dad, we would be sitting in info sessions, and no matter where we were, he would look on his phone to see where the nearest Greek Orthodox Church was. I always rolled my eyes at him.
The Orthodox Church played a big role in my life growing up, but I never realized how much of an impact it could have on my life going into the future. While I was at the University of Tulsa, there weren’t many Orthodox kids my age, and I didn’t really connect to the Orthodox Church there. My dad would get on to me for not getting more involved, and I would roll my eyes at him again.
It wasn’t until my senior year that I really connected to the Tulsa church. I went on my first Real Break trip to Alaska, and after that incredible experience, I knew I had to do another trip. So this year I packed my bags and headed off to Romania.
If I could sum up three things that I’ve learned from Real Break Romania, these would be them:
1. If you allow it, God can use you do to some incredible things
We had the privilege to speak to Father Tenase, the priest who started Pro Vita Orphanage. It all started when they received one baby and went knocking on doors to see if anyone would take him, and now they provide a home for more than 400 people.
During our daily debriefs with our group at the end of each night, we repeatedly referred to Father Tenase as a “firecracker” because his heart is so on fire to serve God and the community there. Whatever he feels called to do, he finds a way to get done and doesn’t ask questions. To sum it up, we all need to be like Father Tenase and go wholeheartedly towards what we are called to do. Be a firecracker.
2. The friendships you make are unlike any other.
There’s something about the relationships you build with someone who shares your faith that creates a special bond. At the end of the trip we weren’t just friends, but family. And I do mean that quite literally, because one of the girls I met for the first time before getting on the plane to Romania and I share the same extended relatives. So quite literally, you meet your family.
Last year I went on Real Break Alaska, and since that trip, we have been fortunate enough to have multiple reunions with most of the participants from all over the states. This year in Romania, I immediately became close to the participants I didn’t already know, and it was truly a blessing to both be reunited with old friends and make new friends so quickly, creating a new family. I fully expect our group to get together for reunions as well. I knew when we were going our separate ways in the airport it wasn’t “goodbye”; it was “see you later.”
3. God answers prayers and shows his love in unexpected ways.
Before going on this trip, I had asked God to teach me how to show love towards the kids and make a positive impact on their lives. Turns out, the exact opposite ended up happening. These kids poured out their love to me, and I learned so much just from being around them a short amount of time.
One child in particular stood out to me: Rares. He is so energetic and such a joy to be around. He’s an avid chanter at church and you could tell he was a leader in the community. Pro Vita puts an emphasis on family, so Rares would often say to me, “I love you, my sister,” out of the blue while walking around or just hanging out. I was truly touched that the kids considered us family when we had only been there a few days.
On our last night in Romania, Rares changed my phone background to a picture of us together and then told me to wait where I was because he had to get something from his room for me. When he returned, he gave me a heart shaped pillow so I would always remember him. You better believe I didn’t just cry, I uglycried when I had to say goodbye to him.
I learned so much – not only from Rares, but from all of the kids we met – about how to love other people and be a positive light even in the darkness.
Kerri is originally from Little Rock, AR and is a recent graduate from the University of Tulsa. She attends Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Tulsa, OK, and when she’s not teaching Sunday school you can find her traveling, running, dancing, or eating ice cream.
As a junior in college, I knew firsthand what it meant to be a stressed student. My classes were getting harder, the future was up in the air, and I felt further from my faith than ever. With the typical college distractions of friends, relationships, social outings, and overall societal pressure, it is often easy to feel sidetracked from keeping God the main reason for everything.
As I embarked on my first Real Break trip, I was not too sure what my expectations should be. I just knew I wanted to come back with a re-focus on God, and for that trip, I will be forever grateful to OCF for Real Break because it more than exceeded my expectations.
The Real Break New Orleans trip is a partnership with International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) to help re-build houses lost during Hurricane Katrina. I thought I knew how tragic Hurricane Katrina was from the media, but I did not expect the chills sent down my spine when we saw it all firsthand. Almost twelve years later, houses are still dilapidated and families are still displaced.
The amount of pain that this city endured is apparent on almost every corner of the neighborhoods that were hit the hardest. It’s been so long, yet my heart was still breaking for this catastrophe. I never want to know what it means to have your entire livelihood and loved ones taken from you in a matter of hours, yet too many residents of New Orleans in 2005 knew this feeling.
For almost an entire week, we worked with Habitat for Humanity to re-build two houses for families with children. It was perhaps some of the most fulfilling days of my college experience. The stories behind the families that were about to live in these houses were absolutely heart-wrenching, and to know that our manual labor could help them even just a little bit, put smiles on our faces. Along with working on the houses, we had cultural immersion experiences in which we visited an exhibit that broke down every minute of the days of torture on the city during the hurricane.
Perhaps the most defining moment of our trip was a night of visiting a local Orthodox parish. The hurricane caused the entire church to flood almost up to four feet. When the priest finally opened the doors days later, an icon of the Virgin Mary floated towards the doors first, the front completely unstained. It was inexplicable, and close to impossible. It is miracles like this that make us realize the glory of God is so much greater than we will ever begin to comprehend.
That night, on the van ride back to where we were staying, we all were quiet and speechless trying to understand the story we had just heard. We began to sing “Down to the River to Pray,” and the camaraderie of that environment was a moment I’ll never forget. There is something so glorious about having your best friends surrounding you as the night comes to a close, forgetting about all else, that makes you feel like Jesus is sitting right next to you. The smile on my face was so big in that moment, and I’ll never forget what it felt like to have all I needed right next to me.
After our trip and our return to reality, I learned that no one else in my life mattered as much as God does. He is my reason for everything, and His plans are so much greater than I will ever know. So all we can do is treat others with respect and kindness, because moments like Hurricane Katrina really put into perspective how precious every minute is. If you have the opportunity for a Real Break trip–do it. Go with all your heart, and the biggest smile, and treat others during your experience the way God would want. I promise you, you will be changed and your heart will thank you.
A dog lover and wanderlust traveler, Isabella is currently a senior Levine Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She started her university’s OCF chapter three years ago, and now has 50 OCF members who are as close as family. When she’s not behind her Nikon, or volunteering at Ryan Seacrest Studios at Levine Children’s Hospital, she’s working as the Public Relations Student Leader for the OCF national Student Leadership Board.
Most people on a college spring break go on cruises with friends or to the beach, but when I told people that I was going to Jerusalem, I won’t lie, I received interesting reactions. Some people supported my decision, saying that it would create a one-of-a-kind experience to last my lifetime, whereas some completely disagreed with my intentions to go, due to safety concerns and not being able to make memories with my friends at school. Nonetheless, I decided that this would be the ultimate trip of a lifetime to which none would compare; it was completely so.
The only concern I had going into the trip was how exactly I was going to manage to raise the money to go. Day by day checking the mail, I quickly realized in spiritual opportunities like this so many people felt a calling to send me on my spiritual journey. But it’s also interesting to see how God will provide in these types of situations. It was a beauty to see and I cannot thank everyone more for supporting me in my decision to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
While we were there we saw so many holy sites, churches, monasteries, and shops. I cannot tell you how many we went into, there were so many. However, what I can tell you are some of the highlights on the trip.
The stone in which the cross was affixed
We saw the Ascension of Christ; it was located in two churches. A Greek Orthodox cathedral and a Russian Orthodox church are dedicated to the Ascension of Christ. I got to see Christ’s footprint and venerate it, and that was hands-down the most powerful moment of my life. It was so surreal. Having the chance to witness something so magnificent that the average person can only visualize in their mind was life-changing.
We also went to the Sea of Galilee. This had to be the most peaceful part of the trip. This was towards the middle of the trip and we had quiet time to write in our journals to reflect on our pilgrimage thus far.
We saw the birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem and even got to go to the Bethany school, a school for Palestinian girls. The women who run the school there are so down to earth and love seeing Christians making the pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
We went to Jacob’s Well and got to drink the water there. Also, we went to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. We even got to watch baptisms happen in Spanish right beside us! The language barrier was not an issue for this because baptisms are such a beautiful moment.
Believe it or not, Christianity isn’t an easy concept. There are so many key elements to our faith that are hard to completely understand and grasp. If you are looking for a trip to answer all of your questions while still testing your faith, this is the trip for you.
The Jordan River
Real Break Jerusalem has changed my life. This trip gave me the utmost reassurance of my faith. I cannot explain how much it has confirmed and strengthened my relationship with Christ. There’s no other place in the world to compare to the diverse culture and history that Jerusalem brings to our world. To say that I’ve been to a place where most people only can dream of going to makes it that much more special.
If you are looking for a trip that will enrich your knowledge in the Orthodox faith and grow your relationship with Christ, I strongly encourage you to go on this trip. There are no other words for me to say other than it has left a huge impact on my life and I cherish the memories and friendships that I made from this trip.
You can register for Real Break Jerusalem, as well as learn information about our many other real break trips, right here!
My name is Natalie King. I’m from Richmond, VA. I’m a junior at Virginia Tech studying Political Science and Communication Studies. A fun fact about me is that I play club field hockey for Virginia Tech.
The most valuable thing Romania gave me is the recognition of the importance of family. I embarked on this journey feeling pity for the orphans, anxious that the language barrier and privilege differences would be far too great to allow us to successfully work and communicate with the residents of the orphanage. I have never been so proven wrong. Upon our arrival, children were begging us to follow them to their homes, play with them, share their chocolates, sleep in their rooms. Our hosts fed us as soon as we arrived, the children and adults lined the one street of the village, peering through fences and out of windows to observe us – not as strangers, but as new members of the orphanage; new members of the family. By the end of the week it was so hard to bear the thought of leaving our new family, we woke at 5 AM to sit on the icy swing set and see our new brothers and sisters off to school; we waved goodbye to pieces of heart, rather than broken pieces of society–as people often consider orphans to be.
Nicole Farha not only spent her spring break in Romania, but also her 21st birthday – I would say what a martyr, but she definitely had more people celebrating her at Pro Vita than I did on my 21st. The orphans baked cakes, made cards and sang songs to celebrate their new sister, Nico.
I look forward to returning to the Pro Vita orphanage, and encourage anyone who has not been on a Real Break trip to sign up for this one! You will not only embrace humanity and Orthodoxy in a way that you’ve never before experienced, but also realize that warm showers, food other than fresh-baked bread and stews, and internet connection are mere luxuries in the grand scheme of things. They are completely unnecessary when you are surrounded by 150 of the brightest, most pure hearts. (Honestly, “Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me” takes on a whole new meaning).
If you love meeting a good, quirky, joke-box of a character, you have to go on this trip. From Pro Vita’s legendary Shakira constantly calling after you “Americaaaaaa, do your hips lie?” to the hoards of school children begging to play chase on the hillside after school, the laughs and jokes are absolutely endless. You’ll go to bed each night so thankful and exhausted–not from physical labor or mental stress, but rather from feeling so much love in your heart, laughing excessively with the orphans, and eating exorbitant amounts of carbs. From the endless amounts of children calling your name in the streets, to the voices of angels singing “O Pure Virgin” in Romanian just after you sing it in English, to the nightly reflections with your group and the final trip into Bucharest with royal treatment at the Patriarchate on the final day of the trip…this is the break from reality that you need. And lastly, you will make friends in your Real Break group that are truly a continuous blessing – no matter where you are in your life, Real Break gives you 10-15 instant friends who are always thinking of you and never fail to be there when you need a hand. I encourage everyone to participate in Real Break, it is truly a magical opportunity.
Mary Catherine Huneycutt is a recent graduate of the University of Houston – with degrees in Literature and Arabic. She currently lives in Beirut, Lebanon and is planning to attend law school in 2017. Hobbies include dancing at 90s night, cafe hopping (think bar hopping, but for introverts) and traveling.