My OCF Story | Vanessa Constantinidis

My OCF Story | Vanessa Constantinidis

In this series, “My OCF Story,” alumni share their experiences from their time in OCF and its impact on their transition and life in the post-grad real world.

Hello OCF community! My name is Vanessa Constantinidis and I am a former OCF Student Leadership Board member. I received both my undergraduate degree, in English & Italian, and my graduate degree, in Writing Studies, from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. I currently work as the Associate Director of Admissions at Hellenic College Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, MA.

Perhaps my most memorable OCF experience was Real Break. My Real Break trip was not only a remarkable memory from OCF, but in life in general! In March 2014, I embarked on my Real Break journey to Romania where I had the opportunity to form relationships with other Real Break students, as well as, orphans, disabled children, elderly, and abused mothers of the Pro-Vita community. I recognized that this trip would impact me, however, I did not realize how my life would forever be changed due to the experiences I was given and the people I had the opportunity to meet.

Throughout our time with the Pro-Vita community, our group grew very close to one of the mothers. She had told us that she had not received communion in years because she was very scared of going to confession. The next day, after many of the Real Break students partook in the sacrament of confession—I saw her walk up to do the same. She later told us that we gave her the strength to go to confession and receive communion, and it was such a remarkable moment that I’ll never forget.

There are two places in the world where I’ve seen my Orthodox faith come to life in the purest form: my metropolis summer camp and in a remote little town in Romania called Valea Screzii. What do they have in common? In both environments, life is simple and Christ is in the center. Valea Screzii is a little piece of Heaven on Earth and all the love and faith in the community can truly move mountains.

I knew participating in OCF would enhance my spiritual life in college and give me the opportunity to connect with other Orthodox Christians—but I didn’t expect it to have as much of an impact as it has on my post-grad life. My involvement in Real Break and the Student Leadership Board, in particular, opened my eyes, not only to the spiritual and social benefits of OCF—but also the professional gains.

Fundraising for my Real Break trip just seemed like a means to an end at the time, but it equipped me with invaluable skills for my career in the non-profit world and in graduate school. Raising funds for my trip involved many speaking engagements, writing personalized letters to communities and donors, and building long-lasting relationships with people who believed in the mission of what I was doing. These skills allowed me to excel in grant writing courses in graduate school, and continue to assist within my role in admissions where I am regularly public speaking and building relationships with students. Additionally, serving as a member of the Student Leadership Board instilled team-building and leadership skills in me, and showed me that a group of young college students can come together and change the world.

It’s so important to join OCF in college because you never know where it may lead you! It’s crazy looking back at my first OCF meeting, where I joined simply because I wanted to have in-depth conversations with other Orthodox Christian students. Jumping forward to now—where my involvement with OCF has led me to working for the Church. I know that wherever my career leads me, I will always have OCF to thank for showing me how to live a balanced life with Christ in the center.

Get involved with OCF in any way you can and whatever way you feel comfortable (I would obviously suggest a Real Break trip or applying to be on the SLB). OCF has the power to shape your spiritual, personal, and professional growth—if you let it. Also, never stop praying.

Vanessa Constantinidis, a Philadelphia native, holds an undergraduate degree in English and Italian and a graduate degree in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. After several years of working in international education, and in admissions for her alma mater—her love for counseling students and her Greek Orthodox faith led her to Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, MA, where she currently serves as the Associate Director of Admissions. When she has free time, she loves reading, writing, exploring different cities in the U.S., or planning her next international trip.

Real Break Romania | Where You Meet Your Family

Real Break Romania | Where You Meet Your Family

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 ugly cried 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.