Walk-a-thon welcomes all in September
By Mary Ann Ebner
Raising kids presents rewards along with challenges, and contemporary parents and guardians face many of the same decisions. At Saint Basil Academy in Garrison, typical issues of growing up present themselves. Saint Basil students ask to go out on school nights, acquire cell phones, and request Wi-Fi in dorm rooms. But ask-and-you-shall-receive is hardly the standard response from the staff. The Greek Orthodox residential childcare facility adheres to traditional standards and provides a nurturing home to children in need.
Father Constantine Sitaras, executive director at Saint Basil Academy, understands societal challenges of parenting and family dynamics, and also commands a sense of the economics of raising a family and operating the nation’s only not-for-profit philanthropic center of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Children may find their way to St. Basil’s due to abandonment, domestic violence, parental illness or substance abuse, poverty or financial hardship, and even the death of a parent.
“In simple terms, we help the child to feel safe and secure,” Sitaras said. “We deal with family issues, and once the child is comfortable, we give the child the tools to continue to find a fulfilling and enriched life, emotionally, academically and spiritually.”
To achieve its mission, Saint Basil’s dedicates long hours to raising funds. Sitaras often raises funds across the country.
“Covering our costs and raising money to continue to operate are challenges,” he said. “It’s been more difficult with the economy over the last few years, and people are gracious and generous, but it’s been challenging.”
Visitors will find Orthros and Divine Liturgy services at Saint Basil’s Chapel, but the organization’s spacious grounds, approximately 160 acres overlooking the Hudson River, have lately served as a backdrop to additional activities.
They’ve hosted church groups, cycling tourists who camped out on the lawn, and opened their gymnasium for a film screening orchestrated in part by one of their own students, Samantha Kapsas. Evan Whitson, St. Basil’s Director of Development, is committed to sharing the mission of the Greek Orthodox Church and the journey of faith that continues in Garrison.
“There’s a lack of knowledge in the community and they don’t know what we do and what we have to offer,” Whitson said. “We’re a bit underutilized and this is a place that kids can come. We can make an impact and help parents provide for their children.”
The number of students living at St. Basil’s fluctuates, but Sitaras and his residential staff are equipped to care for more Orthodox children and are experienced in overcoming obstacles.
“We have a total of 15 students, boys and girls,” Sitaras said. “The younger children go to Bishop Dunn Memorial (Newburgh) and older students go to Haldane. We bus them in our own van to Newburgh and Haldane is close by and we have a wonderful rapport with them.”
Saint Basil’s also coordinates a bridge program for older students who may attend college, work, or are pursuing a combination of both.
“Hopefully, we get them through college,” Sitaras said. “Right now, one is going to Mount Saint Mary College and one is going to Manhattanville in Westchester County. We’ve got a pretty high success rate.”
To thrive successfully, students must comply with a code of conduct. They test and occasionally break rules, but Sitaras said his charges are well aware of consequences of rule-breaking, and good conduct enables students to enjoy privileges.
“When they are in high school, we help them get a driver’s license,” he said. “That happens well after 16 years of age and closer to 18. And they get a job to help pay for insurance and maintenance.”
Students may not have phones until they’ve received their driver’s license and are working. And Wi-Fi is not allowed in dormitories. Students have Internet access in the library, and are encouraged to socialize away from social media networks.
“If one of our children has a friend, they can come for a stay,” Sitaras said. “Just like any parent though, we have to know who it is, how to get in touch (with the visitor’s parents), and we would allow our children to visit them. The fact that our students are in parochial and public schools enables them to assimilate. We have Scouts and musicians who go to jams, and many interests. We try to make things happen for them.”
To make those things happen, small change and major gifts both matter. The centerpiece of Saint Basil’s is a cut granite Tudor, once a home of Jacob Ruppert Jr., brewing baron and owner of the New York Yankees for 24 years. Ruppert, who was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame July 28 at Cooperstown, embellished his 40-room vacation home with ornate fireplaces, wood paneling and brass chandeliers from Europe. Original woodwork still gleams, but the historic property is aging.
“We do continuous work on the mansion,” Sitaras said. “Some things we do ourselves, and some we have to call for help from outside.”
In addition to the mansion and administrative buildings including the library, Saint Basil’s maintains a gymnasium and an enclosed swimming pool. The memorial chapel was gifted to the academy from Mr. & Mrs. William Chirgotis, who established a trust fund for its perpetual care. According to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the word icons simply means “images” in Greek. The chapel is referred to as the “jewel of the academy” and includes meticulously created icons of representations of Christ, angels and saints. Students attend obligatory services at the chapel, and a chaplain assists Sitaras by doing most services.
While raising kids with prayer and care continues, Saint Basil’s is also renewing its commitment to raising funds and awareness.
In a competitive arena for fundraising, Whitson noted that the Saint Basil golf tournament, after careful assessment, had to take a hiatus in 2013. Though a popular event, organizers could not justify this year’s tournament.
“We couldn’t do it this year,” Whitson said. “We had it for five years in a row, but the numbers weren’t adding up.”
But Saint Basil’s will hold their fall fashion show (to be held in October) and will open their sweeping grounds for their walk-a-thon from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28.
“The walk-a-thon is a two-mile loop on our property and it ends with a carnival at the gymnasium,” Whitson said. “Participants will walk around the campus and come back for a huge barbecue.”
The walk-a-thon will cost $20 for adults and $10 for children and includes food, beverages and carnival games.
“Every penny we get comes from a generous donation,” Whitson said. “We’re very fortunate. We’re very family oriented and we want the community to come out and see the academy, the grounds and what we do.”
Organization: Saint Basil Academy
Business hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday
Executive Director: Father Constantine L. Sitaras
Number of employees: approximately 20
Number of acres: 160
Property Deed Holder: Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society
Sunday Orthros Service: 8:30 a.m.
Sunday Divine Liturgy: 9:30 a.m.
Photos by M.E. Ebner