By Dana Zawahri, NAC SOYO Unity Committee Coordinator
Under the blessing of Metropolitan Philip, SOYO celebrated its sixth annual Leadership Training Session at the Antiochian Village this past July. Throughout five days, the newly elected diocesan officers went through intense training in which they were given the tools and taught the skills necessary to lead and succeed in their positions. By listening to various speakers and taking part in different team-building activities, the officers were equipped to serve the teens in each of their dioceses.
During the first portion of Leadership Training the officers learned about the distinct components of SOYO and the several programs it has adopted throughout the years. One of SOYO’s largest programs has been Orthodox Christian Coalition For Healthy Youth  (OCCHY). The goal of this program is to prevent substance abuse and promote intervention where it is occurring. This initiative also encourages respect for the human body and aims to build strong leaders in body, mind and spirit. The teens are taking an active role in this program in the hope of establishing coalitions in their own dioceses.
There are several committees that the North American Committee of SOYO (NAC) has decided to promote this year. A major one is the Unity Committee, established at the last Leadership Training in Chicago. This committee focuses on uniting teens from different Orthodox Christian jurisdictions. Each diocese was given a specific task this year to encourage the teens there to take part. The idea of unity itself has become a very popular subject among our teens. Myriam Zakaib, Treasurer of the Diocese of Ottawa, remarked, “I think Orthodox unity is important because we are all here to serve Christ. We are all brothers and sisters in His name and we should be working together to serve Him. It does not matter whether you are Russian or Greek, or anything else: you are first an Orthodox Christian.”
Father Joseph Purpura is the Youth Consultant Facilitator for the Committee for Youth under the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America , and NAC SOYO thanks the Orthodox Bishops for their efforts in bringing together Orthodox Christian teens across America. The diocesan officers also decided to promote the Transition Committee. During the business portion of our meeting we had the pleasure of hearing Jennifer Nahas speak to us about Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) . This is an organization that Orthodox youth often join during their college years. Since teens usually do this after their SOYO years, the officers wanted to help graduating high school seniors learn more about OCF during their transition to college. Under the leadership of the NAC board, the teens put together a committee to coordinate the transition from high school to college with OCF. Hibbah Kaileh, Treasurer of Diocese of Wichita, stated that “OCF is so vital to ensure college students still have their faith to rely on.”
Following the business portion of Leadership Training, the officers took part in small group activities led by various speakers and small group leaders. During this time the teens heard several talks about how to be leaders in the Orthodox Church. Nicole Tokatli, Secretary of The Diocese of Worcester, observed, “I learned so much from all of the great speakers, like how to use the Divine Liturgy as a model for leadership.” Laura Eisenbrei, NAC Vice President/Diocese of Toledo President, commented that “the speakers provided us with insight and knowledge on how to become successful, not only in the positions we hold, but in our everyday lives.” The speakers showed the teens not only how to be leaders, but how to dress and act like leaders. The officers would like to sincerely thank each speaker for taking the time to come and speak to them.
During the week, the teens had the pleasure of having His Grace Metropolitan Silouan of Argentina present during their meetings. He listened to each diocese’s report and offered observations about the youth in Argentina. The teens were inspired by his stories of the poverty and the rate of illiteracy in the country, and wanted to help in any way they could. As a group, the teens presented a check for $1,500 to Metropolitan Silouan to help improve the lives of teens in Argentina.
A large component of SOYO is fellowship. The teens participated in various activities that helped bond them together and teach them how to work as a team. After celebrating a Hierarchical Liturgy on the training Sunday, the teens went out on a “challenge course.” “The challenge course was probably the main reason I bonded so closely with everyone. It taught us how to work as a team, and really brought us together in the end,” said Hiba Khouri, President of the Diocese of the East. During one part of the course, the officers were told not to communicate while doing a team-building activity. Dylan Fahoome, Treasurer of the Diocese of Toledo, later commented, “We were told to be silent on one of the elements [of the course], which worried us at first. After a few seconds in the silence, however, we were able to hear God’s voice. And that was much less worrying, because we all heard Him, and His wisdom brought us closer to completing the challenge.” The challenge course brought the officers together and taught them to remember to listen for God’s voice despite the loud noise of the world around them. They learned to apply this in their work this year. Although they may be surrounded by the sounds of the world, they have to step back and listen for God’s voice, and remember that they must center themselves on Him.
Leadership training was a time for the officers to meet and gather, in fellowship in Christ. Peyton Powers, Secretary of the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America gave his impressions of Leadership Training: “The friendly introductions set you up for a week of growth, transformation, and love—but, most importantly, Christ. Being in an environment of leaders who share your faith is not only comfortable, but also comforting. As the week progresses you begin to construct life-long relationship with your peers, and strengthen your relationship with God. Leadership Training provides you with the skills you need to become a successful leader on your diocesan SOYO board, but also in your church, school and community.”
Jordan Kurzum, NAC Treasurer of the Diocese of New York and Washington, D.C., enthused, “The experience was indescribable. I was able to meet other Orthodox teens who share my passion for working hard and leading others. I was inspired by all of the fantastic people and lectures and learned to bring everything I was taught back to my own diocese to share with the teens.”
The SOYO officers would like to thank sincerely everyone involved. Without Fr. Joseph Purpura, Kh. Kathleen Purpura, and the youth and spiritual advisors, none of this would have been possible. Special thanks go to the Order of St. Ignatius and The Department of Youth and Parish Ministry. Leadership training not only gives teens the tools they need to be leaders, but also gives them time to bond and learn how to work as a team. The officers have gained the skills and knowledge necessary to lead our youth this year.