Bread for Life
By Angi Christensen Harben
Magazine article for Southern Distinction
In 2006, His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios was approached by a group from Saint Philothea Greek Orthodox Church in Watkinsville, GA about an idea for a new workforce development initiative called Bread for Life.
In the Athens area, almost one-third of the residents are living in poverty, and there is a lack of a qualified workforce for the employment opportunities that are available. Bread for Life was envisioned as a structured 12-week educational program that includes paid training and provides life skills and hospitality industry certificated programs for students.
“He embraced the plan and was happy to see that we were doing something for the local community in taking on this initiative, and he did give us his blessing and encouragement,” explains Father Anthony Salzman of St. Philothea. “We built this beautiful facility and we were anxious to do something for God with it. We didn’t want to just use it for our own benefit once a week on Sunday.”
St. Philothea had previously connected with Athens Technical College, and the school rented the church’s kitchen four days a week for culinary classes. Then the idea came about to start a program that would not only continue to make good use of the facilities, but would also minister to those in the community who were unemployable or underemployed.
The church is an appropriate home base for this program, as it is named for one of the patron saints of Athens, Greece who inspired a revolution of social welfare for enslaved Greek women of the 16th century. St. Philothea turned her family’s estate into a convent that included a working farm, a home for the elderly, a hospital, a hostelry and an orphanage. She taught women how to support and sustain themselves through creating and selling handcrafts.
“Rather than try and solve all the problems in our community, we were just patient and waited for God to direct us where we could be most effective,” says Salzman. “The idea came from (Bread for Life co-founder and parishioner) Paul Cramer that we should imitate the life of our patron saint, Saint Philothea. The hospitality industry being the second biggest industry in Georgia, we said this is a great opportunity for people on the fringes to get back into society through that industry.”
Walking into the Narthex during Bread for Life production hours, one is treated to the comforting aroma of fresh baked bread. If warm and cozy could be identified by a smell, this would be it. Getting closer to the church kitchen, one hears the busy chatter of master baker Chuck Clark overseeing the five young people responsible for creating the delectable wheat rolls that invariably cause visitors’ stomachs to growl from want.
“From day one, they have never produced a bad roll,” explains Clark, the students’ lead instructor. “They listened and they followed instructions, and when things didn’t look right or didn’t work right, they didn’t stand around and point fingers. They came up with solutions. They took pride in what they were doing, and when those rolls start coming out of the oven, every one of them takes a look and makes sure they’re okay. That tells me that they care.”
The second 12-week session is drawing to a close, and the students are preparing for graduation, which will be marked by a banquet they prepare for more than 100 guests. Three months ago they didn’t know how to make a roll. They weren’t working, weren’t going to school, and didn’t have many prospects for the future. They were the faces of the troubling poverty statistics in their community. They will leave the Bread for Life program armed with new confidence and new marketable skills. Each member of the first Bread for Life class had a job offer upon completion of the program.
“It has been an honor to get to know these students and watch them progress in their abilities, their confidence and their plans for the future,” says Cramer. “They will each be an asset to any organization that hires them. They are going into an industry that will reward them for their diligence and will appreciate the special training they’ve received. These students hold the keys to bright futures, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with the opportunities that will come their way. I’m very proud of each of them.”
Students earn a paycheck while producing up to 3,000 rolls a week. In the evenings they attend classes learning lessons to prepare them for jobs that can lead to sustainable careers. Hospitality is one of the top economic engines in the region and is in need of a qualified workforce. It is one of the few industries where jobs can’t be exported and formal education is not required for career advancement.
“I’ve learned a lot about leadership and how to become a good leader, and the importance of hospitality in whatever you do,” says program alumni Ashley Edwards, who has embarked on a career she hopes will lead to being a banquet manager. “It’s opened me up and given me a better understanding of myself and given me a chance to change. It feels good to know there are people looking out for you and giving you a chance to succeed.”
Creating that chance for success has taken countless volunteer hours, a patchwork of financial supporters and much prayerful consideration to get the non-profit program underway. With a Georgia Department of Labor grant, additional assistance from the Athens Area Community Foundation and the Frances Wood Wilson Foundation plus generous individual donors, funds were secured for equipment and start-up costs. Fundraising continues, and the program could not exist without the support it receives from the St. Philothea congregation.
“Just as St. Philothea stepped out in faith, that’s really what the Bread for Life program is all about,” notes Salzman. “There are so many people supporting the ministry through their time and through their talents and through their treasures. The volunteers, the people on the board, the people who are teaching – they can all feel very good about their offerings. Indirectly, Bread for Life is helping those people fulfill their ministry.”
The original governing board was made up mostly of St. Philothea parishioners. When members of the congregation became more familiar with the program they pitched in by helping in a myriad of ways, including acting as serving staff for the first graduation celebration banquet. The students attend St. Philothea’s Thursday night spaghetti dinners and the church has contributed proceeds from several fundraising events to the program. Seeing the effect of Bread for Life on the students and witnessing the changes in their lives has helped to frame new purpose for the parish.
In addition to ministry, of course there are the church’s day-to-day business affairs to manage. The demands of meeting a mortgage and paying all the bills can become burdensome.
“If you focus too much on that, you kind of lose track of why you’re here,” says Salzman of his 37-family parish. “It’s exciting to see the building used in such a way, to see the kids when we all have dinner together. One of our members puts it so well. He likes to show the rolls and says, ‘This is the fruit,’ and this is the opinion of the parish. This is really a significant thing for such a small parish.”
Bread for Life is a replicable system that proves any church can use a facility it already has, can lean on leadership it already has, and can draw on community resources it already has to minister in a meaningful way in its community. Although it takes a lot of work and dedication, Salzman says it’s not a burden to be the home of such a program. In addition to contributing to the well being of others, income is being generated for the parish through the rental of the facility.
“The people who have never heard of Orthodoxy or St. Philothea, they wonder who we are,” Salzman explains. “An unexpected blessing, by trying to do God’s will, is that you end up reaching people you wouldn't otherwise reach. So they see and get an impression of St. Philothea based on experience, not on theology or church dogma. They experience the life of St. Philothea through their contact with us, and people really enjoy that. Their first impression, their first experience with Orthodoxy, is that they find vitality and joy and a loving community.”
Bread for Life 3761 Mars
Hill Road Watkinsville, GA 30677 706-201-4640 email@example.com