Raising up Leaders”: Alumna Directs National Youth Service Program

Virginia Nieuwsma

Katrina Bitar (SVOTS '09) is the North America Program Director for YES, or Youth Equipped to Serve. A ministry of FOCUS North America, YES provides opportunities for junior high and high school students to participate in formative weekends of service in urban environments across the U.S. and Canada.

A lifetime member of the Antiochian Archdiocese, Katrina began working with youth during her college years and eventually was tapped to head the YES program after graduating from St. Vladimir's Seminary in 2009. A look at her busy calendar for the first half of 2016 reveals that she will be involved with outreach efforts in Los Angeles, Boston, Austin, Montreal, Newark, Kansas City, Grand Rapids, Portland, and Philadelphia. (Note: This interview was first published in Antiochian.org.)

What is your background, and how did you first get involved with YES?

I was born in Burbank, California, but spent most of my life in Little Falls, NJ. I discovered my youth ministry gifts while serving at the Antiochian Village as a counselor during my college years. In 2001, I took a job as a youth director for a parish in Phoenix, AZ that began my full-time youth ministry work. It was through my work as a parish youth director that I was introduced to the YES Program. I brought some of my young people on the first YES trip in January of 2004, and the rest is history. I began traveling with my teens to cities all over the country to participate in the program, and eventually began leading trips on a part time basis. After I graduated from St. Vladimir's Seminary in 2009, I was asked to direct the program.

Tell us a bit about YES. Whom do you serve, and what is your main emphasis?

The YES Program provides opportunities for junior high, high school, and college students to participate in formative weekends of service that aim to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor and bring youth to an awareness of Christ in themselves and others. Through this experience, we aim to identify and cultivate leadership gifts in trip participants, with the ultimate purpose being to raise up service leaders who will lead others in loving and serving our most needy neighbors in their own communities and on future YES trips.

We spend the majority of our time building community with the people on our trips. We visit homeless ministries, family shelters, after school programs, nursing homes, and spend time with individuals that live on the streets. We also aim to break the mold of what poverty is by sharing fellowship and love with all the people we encounter of all economic levels.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

We hope that the students that experience a YES trip come to a real awareness of who God has created them to be and enter into a life of selfless love for the sake of others. Seeing these young people come to know Christ and their place in the world is inspiring for me and exciting for both them and the communities they are a part of. It is so important for them to see that they are a valuable part of the Lord's workmanship. Their openness to see the Lord in all people is also the fruit of the encounters they have during trips with people that are homeless, children in shelters, and elderly in nursing homes. Our prayer is that they come to know Christ in themselves and serve Him in every person they come in contact with, whether it be their parents or a stranger. Their enthusiasm to love and serve the world is my joy.

If you could communicate one thing to fellow Orthodox Christians about the homeless and poor in our communities, what would it be?

The homeless and working poor communities across the nation are similar in that they are incredibly open to others and have a deep desire for God and connection with people. Most of our ideas of the average person that is homeless are transformed by stretching outside of what is comfortable for us and meeting them where they are. The average age of a homeless person is nine, which speaks volumes. The greatest cause for homelessness in America is simply lack of affordable housing, and most Americans are just two paychecks away from being homeless.

We are all one community of people, impoverished in our own ways. We all experience joy and pain. We always aim focus on the person, not their circumstances. Our concern is for the person, so we aim to build relationships and discover their needs, not assume we know what they are. The Church is called to be for the world, so as members of one Body, we must take the Church to the streets and say to those who are strangers to us, we are one. Building community and recognizing Christ in the other is our approach. It is never us and them, but we.

What feedback do you get from the young people you work with?

Here are a couple testimonies from students that have participated in YES Trips:

"When attending my first YES trip, I was amazed by both the personal and spiritual growth I experienced. As a teenager in a world consumed by materialism and selfish wants, I found it refreshing to spend a weekend de-emphasizing my personal desires and focusing on the needs and wants of those around me. Being able to put other people's desires above my own allowed me to experience a happiness that only could be provided through God's work. My spiritual life was enriched in that throughout the experience I was able to see God's beauty in everything. The people I encountered while serving had such a love for life and God's simple gifts. My heart was opened and changed while serving the community and I have never felt so much love before. YES is a beautiful organization and I believe it is something that everybody should have the honor to experience." - Zan Bojrab

"YES, to me, is about courage. It is about facing the fear of looking someone in the eye and truly wanting to know that person. It is about having the courage to know others and accepting them for everything they embody – their flaws, their struggles, their hopes, and their dreams. It is about having the courage to see yourself for who you are. My experience with YES has taught me that relationships are about more than acceptance of people, but about the courage to honestly and openly see a person with new eyes...no preconceived notions, and, regardless of who they are, to love them for their humanity." - Panayiotis Constantine

Where would you like to see YES go as an organization, in the next five years?

The hope is to have trained leaders all over the country leading trips in different regions. We also hope to create trips for families, college students, and young adults. We are having our first family trip on February 7th. We currently have 33 students that have gone through our annual Leadership Training, and they are assisting with planning and leading trips. God willing, with time and experience, they will soon be leading YES trips and our other college campus initiatives. Our service-learning process and service leadership training is available to all of our Orthodox church communities nationwide.

Learn more about YES