Early Struggles Meet the Driving Force

IOCC, which is now headquartered in Baltimore, was officially founded two decades ago on March 11, 1992. But its actual conception and the beginnings of its operations and activities began considerably earlier than that.

Stretching back to early 1992, when IOCC first made those crucial airlifts to Russia – and certainly prior to that all-important effort, when IOCC was still just an idea – and up until the present day, Mr. Rangos has remained a driving force behind IOCC and its philanthropic endeavors.

Marnie Kelly, who served as program coordinator for the Rangos Foundation, which was then operating as the philanthropic wing of Mr. Rangos’ companies, said Mr. Rangos saw the need for a Pan-Orthodox Christian entity with a humanitarian mission, and then set about making such an organization a reality.

“Where do you start? Mr. Rangos is IOCC, really. It wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him – not just for his idea and vision, but also for his tenacity, commitment and action. Mr. Rangos made IOCC happen, and when he makes something happen, he moves whatever needs to be moved. He’s just a very determined, compassionate and phenomenal person,” said Ms. Kelly, who also played a key role in the initial effort to create a Pan-Orthodox humanitarian agency before IOCC was officially formed. Ms. Kelly, who also served as a relief worker for IOCC in Russia for almost two years, helped Mr. Rangos solicit services and supplies from the U.S. Defense Department and donations from Merck, Heinz and other companies with offices in the Pittsburgh area for emergency relief to Russia.

Like anything of momentous substance, however, getting started and established is usually an uphill climb, with plenty of struggles and challenges along the way. According to Ms. Kelly, the most difficult obstacle Mr. Rangos needed to hurdle was the Church itself. Too many individual interests within each ethnic group presented a unique challenge in bringing all groups to the table for a common purpose which was agreeable to all, she said. The challenge was to bring America’s various Orthodox jurisdictions together so that they could operate in a more cohesive manner for humanitarian reasons.

“I think the most prominent challenge Mr. Rangos faced was within the Church system itself. The first thing he recognized was, there are Orthodox Christian countries in need of dire assistance, and what is America’s Orthodox Christian community doing about it? It wasn’t simply, what are the Greek Orthodox doing about it – or the Russian or Serbian Orthodox – but what are all Orthodox doing about it, regardless of their ethnic origin? Mr. Rangos had a much larger vision than just pulling together an organization for people of Greek heritage. He wanted something that would include all Orthodox Christians, thereby making its impact as an organization much greater,” she said.

“Look at Catholic Relief Services, for example. Mr. Rangos saw that the entire Roman Catholic Church has a philanthropic arm that operates strictly for humanitarian reasons all over the world, but the Orthodox community didn’t have anything like that, so he wanted to bring something together. The most difficult part in doing so was the number of Orthodox Christian groups of different ethnic backgrounds. It was kind of like the United Nations, but on a smaller scale. Everyone was jockeying and fighting for representation and influence. Those were definitely struggles I noticed at the meetings I attended in the early days,” she said.

“Getting the blessings of the various patriarchs for the effort was not difficult, at all, because they knew Mr. Rangos is a man of integrity. He’s a man of action, and a man of his word. But pulling the different Orthodox jurisdictions in America together was a whole other challenge,” she added.

In response, Ms. Kelly explained, Mr. Rangos pursued a twofold plan: pulling the whole Church together by getting all its different ethnic expressions to work together – “a phenomenal achievement, in and of itself” – and establishing the very first American-based Pan-Orthodox philanthropic organization with a presence in various countries.

The effort to establish a Pan-Orthodox humanitarian agency also had inter-Orthodox and ecumenical implications, she noted: “Establishing IOCC helped open up Pan-Orthodox relations not just within the United States, but also among other countries. So the establishment of IOCC has done a tremendous amount of good not just for the people it delivers goods and services to, but also for Church relations internationally,” she said.

After IOCC got off the ground, Ms. Kelly got directly involved with the agency as a program coordinator. Once IOCC became an established entity and opened an office in Moscow, she asked Mr. Rangos to let her join the IOCC team in Russia. “IOCC had a fledgling office in Moscow, which they started setting up in January of 1992. I went there as a program coordinator from January of 1993 to September of 1994. I worked with 15 other paid staffers,” she said.

How it All Started

The first airlift to Russia on February 29, 1992 was not done officially by IOCC, she said, but the agency was already loosely formed. By the time the second airlift got underway a few days later, IOCC was an incorporated not-for-profit charity.

“Because IOCC was still in the midst of becoming an official entity, so much of its early activity was being handled by the Rangos Foundation, and people working for Mr. Rangos. They weren’t paid members of IOCC yet. But IOCC still gets the credit for both airlifts because it was already in the process of being formed, and Mr. Rangos was doing all of this with IOCC in mind,” she explained.

“And Mr. Rangos had virtually everything to do with moving it forward because he didn’t care about his own position in society, and he didn’t care about what positions other individuals had. Church politics didn’t matter to him, either. All he cared about was the noble purpose, which was to get those two airlifts to Russia. He didn’t allow himself to be paralyzed by personality conflicts, political infighting or inaction of any kind,” Ms. Kelly said.

The first airlift was a result of Mr. Rangos’ approaching the U.S. Department of Defense (through the office of the late Congressman John Murtha) and letting them know he could procure substantial amounts of privately donated food and medical supplies, she said.

“He just needed a way to get it to Russia, so they came through for us with the first plane,” she said. In light of the first airlift’s success, she added, DOD then asked IOCC to organize a second one.

Mr. Rangos insisted on putting the American flag on every bag, so that the Russian people would know the American people care.

Mr. Rangos, a proud Greek American who also has some Russian blood coursing through his veins, spent a couple of weeks in Russia two years after IOCC airlifted food and medical supplies to Moscow. While he was there, he met with then U.S. Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering and then Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, the first Russian Orthodox patriarch of the post-Soviet period.

Mr. Pickering, who eventually went onto serve as an undersecretary of state during the last three years of the Clinton Administration, told Mr. Rangos how immensely important the IOCC shipments were in fostering an unprecedented level of goodwill between the two countries, which were still emerging from the Cold War. The (now late) Russian Patriarch noted Mr. Rangos’ Russian lineage (the Rangos family in Russia was part of the Russian aristocracy under the czars, and 400 years of Rangoses are buried in Russia soil; they were known for their unyielding opposition to the Ottoman Turks). Patriarch Alexy also talked about how important the IOCC effort was. He emphasized the amount of attention the IOCC airlifts generated among the Russian populace, and how grateful they all were to receive much-needed American aid.

Teaching Self-Sufficiency

Asked what struck her about IOCC during and since that time, Ms. Kelly said it was IOCC’s penchant for helping those in need develop a sense of self-sufficiency through the philanthropic work of the Church. IOCC hired and regularly interacted with local people. The initiative to hire Russian nationals to run their own programs particularly endeared the agency to the people it was trying to help.

“What I remember being the most positive aspect of IOCC establishing itself within a Church-based system, was an office next to a monastery. That made us different. We didn’t just come into Moscow as a crew of Americans; start a program; put everything into place; and do everything ourselves. We started with one or two Americans. Then we hired all-Russian nationals. We worked very closely with the Russian Orthodox Church and community. And we made it their program. We saw their excitement in doing things themselves, and we just wanted to give them the tools. They felt like they owned it, and to me, that was our biggest success. We were just a background player trying to organize and communicate. But teaching people how to apply for grants and giving people jobs was an integral part of that background work,” she said.

“We would hire Russians right off the street to help us at the warehouse. ‘Would you like to help out and earn a little money today?’ I remember one scientist. The State had so many educated people at the time who were lost or forgotten because their services were not needed, and he was one of those people. He was so grateful for the opportunity to help us. Everyone wants to help. Intelligent people don’t want handouts. They want to pitch in and do their part. And the energy behind helping their own people and doing their own distributions made a tremendous impression on me,” she added. Ms. Kelly also cited IOCC’s work with various orphanages as also a significant step in the agency’s early undertakings. Vital though it is, IOCC was not concerned with simply providing food and clothing for individual children, she explained, but also with the development of the whole child and institutional development of an entire orphanage or orphanage system.

“The orphanage system that was there at the time was basically just a huge holding cell for unwanted children. But we didn’t want to deal just with the problem from the standpoint of, ‘Now you’re fed. Now you’re clothed. So let’s keep feeding you and clothing you.’ We really delved into program development. We found one orphanage that was very innovative in its own right. They were trying to teach children music and basic skills to help reintegrate children back into Russian society. That was virtually unheard of, and we tried to create a program for grant writing so that they could teach other orphanages to be more progressive about obtaining funds for such purposes. It was a matter of helping them help themselves by expanding a model they already had in place, and then giving them the tools. They couldn’t turn to their own government for that, so they had to be taught to secure money from other sources. Again, it’s another great example of IOCC helping development from within,” she said.

Such examples of concrete success in the early going promulgated IOCC, and got the U.S. Government’s attention which, in turn, helped catapult the agency into the realm of philanthropic activity and networking it enjoys today, with an annual budget upwards of $35 million and a staff of 80 putting programs into effect in 13 countries. The fact that IOCC was an Orthodox Christian agency operating in traditionally Orthodox Christian lands also made sense to non-Orthodox organizations, and IOCC distinguished itself by getting supplies to the right people.

Because IOCC worked with the Russian Orthodox Church, Ms. Kelly explained, the goods were going directly to people in need, rather than to the black market, which consisted of individual opportunists taking the goods and selling them to meet their own profiteering objectives. Most of the time, she said, corrupt officials – hangers-on from the Soviet era, who gave the U.S. goods to their friendly neighborhood opportunists in exchange for illicit payoffs – exploited government-to-government distributions. But when the U.S. Government saw how well IOCC worked with the Church, and how effective that working relationship was, DOD asked IOCC to handle other U.S. shipments to Russia.

“That’s what launched IOCC so quickly from an idea to a solid and respected organization. After the distribution from that second airlift, the U.S. Government realized that all its previous distributions never got to those they were intended for. All the previous shipments ended up on the black market. Medicine was for sale at kiosks down the street; there were food exchanges on the street – all with packages that were marked DOD. The supplies weren’t given to people in need. They were going to people with money and connections,” she said.

“There were corrupt government officials still in place from the communist era, and they were the ones who were distributing the goods to the black market. They would make it available to profiteers in exchange for kickbacks. That’s how it worked with government-to-government distributions. I saw it happen firsthand. But very quickly after our second shipment, because we worked through the Russian Orthodox Church system, the U.S. Government saw that our distributions were getting into the right hands. And we were able to account for it. So DOD said they would start sending a certain percentage of aid to Russia through IOCC, and that helped us open a second office with an additional ten employees to handle U.S. Government supplies,” she added.

Dangers of Relief Work

While she was in Russia working out of IOCC’s offices in Moscow, Ms. Kelly also traveled to Tblisi, Dvorsk and Kiev. She had already returned to the United States when two Russian nationals, IOCC staffers in Chechnya, were abducted in the fall of 1997, during a time when tensions were still running high between the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and the Russian Federation. One staffer was held hostage for six months, the other for 11 months.

Hundreds of relief workers were being kidnapped at the time, and the abductions threw many humanitarian agencies into a tailspin, she said. It changed the landscape for relief workers everywhere, she noted, adding that it’s even more dangerous for relief workers now than it was when IOCC first started, and that it hasn’t gotten much safer in the post-9/11 world.

“When I was there, things were still very idealistic. It was all about making distributions to people in need. It was strictly humanitarian. We gave to Christians and Muslims alike, and we were very respected for our neutrality. It’s still that way, but relief workers are on the front line. We had our fingers on the pulse. We were in the field, and the local people liked us. They trusted us, and we weren’t targets. But when the military shows up, it creates a whole other climate. It makes things much more dangerous for everybody. So I have the highest regard for relief workers, especially today because they’re targeted more often now – all over the world,” she said.

Mr. Rangos and the IOCC board of directors, chaired by Charles Ajalat at the time, were extremely concerned about the wellbeing of all abducted IOCC staffers and relief workers, Ms. Kelly said.

Intense discussions and negotiations went on for months, she explained, with the board ultimately deciding against giving into the kidnappers’ ransom demands to stem the escalation of further abductions.

Mr. Triantafilou, who once had a gun pointed to his head, concurred that the landscape has become more dangerous for relief workers.

“We have IOCC staff members putting their lives on the line on any given day. We have people working in places like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria; Jerusalem and Gaza; supporting the Church in Iraq. When two IOCC employees got kidnapped in Chechnya, that was a very rude awakening. Yes, I worked through the war in Bosnia – I’ve faced plenty of scary situations – but when those two colleagues were held hostage under my watch, it made the danger even more real for me. I spent the next year working with the board to help secure their release,” he said.

But while relief workers representing an Orthodox Christian agency also get targeted, in lands where the historical Christian presence has been an Eastern one, IOCC has an edge over Western Christian organizations: Orthodox Christians have been living in certain parts of the world for centuries, so they are viewed as familiar and indigenous, and therefore with less mistrust.

Logistically, this has helped IOCC expand its operations from Russia and the Balkans to the Middle East and Africa, as well as to other crisis zones like Haiti, which is not an Orthodox Christian country. As an Orthodox Christian entity, IOCC has also been able to leverage its Eastern Christian identity and cultivate relations with other relief organizations.

Reflection, Expansion and the Rock

When Mr. Triantafilou first joined the organization, he said, there were challenges on several fronts, but as IOCC started helping with more and more projects, funding from sources outside America’s Orthodox Christian community increased, and the size of IOCC’s operations gradually expanded.

“The IOCC office in Belgrade was a small shop. You could see it was a startup deal. They had one person working out of an apartment, which was doubled up as an office with a couple of computers. We were really starting from scratch. But we had our ecumenical partners. The World Council of Churches had what was then called Unit Four, and Unit Four eventually evolved into the ACT alliance. So we had the Church getting some support from the ecumenical family and its related agencies; we had commodities coming from Greece, and then whatever monies were raised by the Baltimore office to support our program in Yugoslavia,” he said.

“But in the early days, the challenge was starting something from nothing, and it was all about leveraging. If you had a small project showing what you could do, then maybe it could turn into something bigger. One of the first grants we got was with the support of a British group called Christian Aid to help institutions in Serbia. They got a sense of what our capabilities were, and after we had a chance to develop a bit of a track record, we were able to turn to them while they were going after European funding for larger scale projects in Bosnia,” he said.

“It was all about relationship building and building trust. We started small, but through us, for example, the World Food Program distributed 20 tons of flowering peas in Serbia. They were trying to fill a small niche, and we were trying to establish what we could do, so mutual needs were met. And we would take anything, especially back then, because we wanted to keep expanding our capacity to do more. So in the early days, it was all about how to leverage whatever program you had in front of you in order to do the next program, without asking Baltimore for a lot of cash,” he added.

It took about 5-6 years for IOCC to gel and become a cohesive Pan-Orthodox organization, Mr. Triantafilou said, and the Rangos Foundation played a key role in helping the organization get to the point where it could stand on its own two feet.

“The three founders (Mr. Rangos, Andrew Athens and Mr. Ajalat) have each played important and unique roles, and I’ve had good working relationships with all three. I never got a chance to work (as executive director) with Mr. Rangos when he was chairman, but personally and professionally, Mr. Rangos has always been a rock – for me and for the organization,” Mr. Triantafilou said.

“Year-in and year-out, Mr. Rangos’ contributions have come not only at critical times, but also when times are more stable. He’s not only very gracious as far as his own contributions, but he’s also very gracious in allowing us to use his good name to encourage others to participate. To be the lead gift in a project – as he has been for several – opens the door for others to also contribute. When I called Bishop Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Australia and told him the Rangos Foundation offered $50 thousand for Kosovo, he said he would try to raise that, too. So we were able to raise more money in large part because the Rangos family gave us that all-important initial opportunity,” he said.

“And Mr. Rangos hasn’t faded. He has remained consistent since day one. Eighteen years later, he’s still there with his time, talents and treasure. If I need to talk about strategy and new ideas, or if I simply need encouragement, he’s always available. And it’s so important to have a person like him in your corner,” he added. And Mr. Rangos continues to keep Mr. Triantafilou and IOCC inspired and motivated: “Even more so now. The more I mature in this job, the more I appreciate being able to lean on him. The bigger it gets, the more complicated it gets. We keep growing because of challenges along the way, and Mr. Rangos is always there for us. He’s just a very steady, sincere and loving source of support. There’s no other way to put it. I know others feel the same way, and in one way or another, they will all tell you the same thing,” Mr. Triantafilou said.