By Luke Barber | Avery Journal | April 15, 2020
Despite having roots in the Orthodox Christian Church, the way in which the First Things Foundation conducts its missions and relief efforts is anything but traditional.
Similar to the Peace Corps or Samaritan’s Purse, First Things Foundation prides itself in its efforts to help those in third-world countries, but more recently the organization has sewn its seeds in Avery County and has partnered with Feeding Avery Families to help distribute food to residents in need.
The organization, which was founded in 2013 by John Heers, is looking to increase its response efforts to COVID-19 locally as well as supply volunteers to food banks in a 50-mile radius. FTF has centered its efforts at its Appalachia mission in Newland, where many of its field workers are flocking as the organization’s international work has temporarily stalled due the coronavirus situation abroad.
FTF’s Executive Field Director Dan Padrnos is one such member of the organization who has been assisting Dick Larson and the volunteers at Feeding Avery Families.
“The premise of our work is we send people out to parts of the world that are usually lower income or where people are suffering from some kind of poverty or lack of resources,” Padrnos said. “We believe that if you’re going to respond to the needs of a local community, you need to understand the needs of the local people. There’s no better way of doing that than learning the language and being immersed in the culture.”
A native of Colorado, Padrnos first became involved with FTF after graduating with an engineering degree from Gonzaga University. After finishing college, Padrnos soon found a desire to venture beyond his comfort zone. Through the organization, he helped set up FTF’s mission in Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa. While immersed in the country’s culture, Padrnos learned Creole and partnered with the Orthodox Mission, acting as a liaison between the mission’s funders and the local builders in the community.
“I realized that I wanted to get more of a world experience and exposure to different cultures. I went to Peru once for a month, but Sierra Leone was definitely a different animal. I certainly experienced [being picked on a little bit and being the different guy] but it was healthy. It was really hard at times, but there was a lot to learn,” Padrnos said.
Padrnos and the organization’s other field workers, who live in countries like Guatemala or Georgia, travel to these remote locations in order to engage with people they refer to as impresarios, which is an Italian word for a businessman or entrepreneur.
Padrnos noted one man he worked with who would make bread with the locals in Sierra Leone, work on the rice fields and drink palm in order to become part of the community. This engagement has led to the building of schools, community centers and the burgeoning of small businesses like honey exports, restaurants, eye care and micro-financing, as well as a fund to help widows and their children who were affected by the civil war in Sierra Leone that lasted from 1991 to 2002.
“You’ll find entrepreneurs all over the world. There’s a lot of organizations that invest in certain people in Africa and parts of the developing world, and they find that their notions of how their investments will work out don’t actually align with reality,” Padrnos explained. “Rather than assuming that my money or resources will produce something that I think is good, we develop as the community sees as they ought to develop. We simply go and ask, ‘What does development look like here?’”
While there are undoubtedly many needs in the developing world, there are still ample people in the United States that need help as well. It is a comment that Padrnos says he has heard repeatedly. As the organization has grown, its efforts in the United States has increased as well.
FTF’s flagship project in Appalachia began due to an unlikely partnership with Feeding Avery Families that resulted out of someone missing a dinner that was held at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk.
“It’s just one of those happenstances in life,” FAF Director Dick Larson said.
Larson was invited to the dinner to fill a spot and ended up meeting Heers, who informed Larson that FTF was looking at filling needs that might exist in the region. The chance encounter led to two members of FTF, Andrew and Victoria Schwark, to begin volunteering for FAF in the Fall of 2019.
“[The] young man had been in FTF in Guatemala, and he had met this woman there in this little town in the middle of nowhere,” Larson said. “She was a Russian physician running a medical mission there, and they got married at the end of [their trip]. They both grew up Russian Orthodox, and he had grown up in Wisconsin. They came here for a little while [before] he and his wife returned to Russia because they wanted to adopt babies.”
Padernos eventually came to take Andrew’s place along with two new arrivals: Iain and Juliana Thorp, who are spending their immersion with FTF by living and working in Avery County. The couple had originally planned to help FAF expand its operations by helping recipients access other resources through NCCARE360, a state database meant to provide a coordinated care network.
“I thought they would be a perfect couple to help manage that and take it on as a team project,” Larson said. “Then the coronavirus struck, and obviously all those new initiatives were put on the shelf. We’re not doing a whole lot of new things, we’re just trying to find a way to keep the ship floating and keep food on the shelf. They got very involved in our day-to-day operations and they got very involved with the food pantries on the school grounds and putting food into the school buses each week.”
“The idea is that nobody has just one lead,” Iain Thorp said of NCCARE360. “They may be hungry or food insecure, they may be housing insecure or living in an abusive situation or be addicted. There may be these other things they need help with other than just getting food. The idea is that we can give them the food part of it, and then connect them with people in the area who can connect them with their other needs.”
The Thorps became involved with FTF after meeting each other on a dating website for Orthodox Christians and eventually were married. Juliana spent her career as an elementary school teacher for at-risk children before working in the business community. Iain continues to work as a designer for the furniture industry while still being a part of FTF.
Since they have been together, the couple has found a mutual desire to help and give back to others. Iain said that before they found FTF, they were thinking about opening a school to teach people who are getting out of prison employable skills, such as design or furniture building. For now, they have been focused on getting to know people in the community.
“FTF tries to go in and build relationships and put people first,” Juliana said. “We ask, ‘Are you a resource? Are you someone who wants to do something but you’re lacking access to finances or a building? Is there something stopping you from moving forward?’ If so, is there something that we can do to help you start that business plan?”
While Juliana has been a practicing Christian most of her life, she says that her desire to help others became stronger when she converted to Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, Iain has been involved in international work from a young age. Born in Florida, Iain grew up in New Zealand before returning to the US. He traveled with this parents to Guatemala where they worked with orphans and later to Haiti where his mother taught school.
“As a teenager you’re trying to figure out your own self, but you are surrounded by people who have so much need,” Iain said. “For me, trying to keep those things balanced between the extreme poverty I’ve seen and the wealth of material objects, it had a real effect on me. I’ve been hoping to do something like this my whole life.”
Juliana said that she is excited to start this new chapter with her husband in Avery County.
“I am so excited because it was something on my heart, to be more loving, because what we see a lot today is we become more independent and task-focused, and I just realized that I wasn’t loving people as fully as I want to and as fully as Christ is asking me to do,” Juliana said. “When you have family, work and profession and these things, it’s a desire you have to act on it. Now working with First Things, our job is to love people. God puts [people] right there in front of you, but you don’t see them because you’re too focused on that one-way track, whatever you’re doing. It’s so beautiful that God has given us this opportunity with First Things to work with FAF and just being in the community. We’ve really been welcomed here.”