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Ray Iasilli

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Photo courtesy John Damaskos

In keeping with over half a century of tradition, the Port Jefferson community celebrated the 61st annual Greek Festival from Aug. 25 to 28.

The event was held on the grounds of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption on Sheep Pasture Road. The local chapter of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, known as AHEPA 319, helped make the festivities possible. 

Powering the operation was a variety of local volunteers and benefactors who helped make the four-day festival a success. The event generated considerable attention from people both in and around the area, drawing families, community members and elected officials.

Hosted at the Church of the Assumption every year in its existence, the Port Jeff Greek Fest started as a mere picnic for the local churchgoers. Over time, however, it sprouted into a communitywide celebration of Greek culture and customs, and a gathering for people across Long Island and the region. 

AHEPA 319 member John Damaskos discussed the festival’s history and deeply rooted traditions. “They realized that they had the resources, that other people were liking it and bringing friends, so [decided], ‘Let’s expand it,’” Damaskos said. “It expanded into what it is today, which is probably the biggest and best Greek festival in New York and possibly the East Coast.”

The supervisory arm that oversees the Church of the Assumption’s year-round activities is its Parish Council. Emmanuel Lilimpakis, president of the council, has been involved with this festival for over three decades. He referred to the integral role that the festival performs in helping the church meet its fiscal aims.

“If the festival is successful, then the church is successful,” he said. “We are working hard and trying to bring the church into its prosperous goals. Everybody here is a volunteer, and we have a common goal to help the church flourish.” He added, “We are here and will be here for a long time. That is the consensus.”

Attendees were greeted with a wide assortment of foods, carnival rides, dance circles, music, raffles and games. Proceeds raised over the four days helped support the church and many other initiatives.

Ray Iasilli, another member of AHEPA 319, spoke at length about one of the signature programs that the local chapter is currently supporting, the AHEPA Service Dogs for Warriors program. This nationwide program raises money to train service dogs who can comfort veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumas caused by combat.

“It [is costly] to train a dog for a veteran,” Iasilli said. “We’re taking donations. We want to raise money, and all that profit will go to them for their war dog foundation.” To learn more or to donate, visit ahepa-servicedogs.org.

Representatives of several volunteer organizations and nonprofits also tabled during the event. One of them was Irene Michalos, founder and executive director of Agape Meals for Kids. Formed in the fall of 2021, the organization provides weekend meals for students who depend on school lunches during the week. 

“These are children who rely on the school meals — breakfast and lunch — during the weekdays, but on the weekends they don’t have consistent food,” she said. “We provide them with a backpack of meals, enough to fill in the gap of the seven meals that they’ll be missing, including snacks, milk and juice. That way, we know they have enough to sustain themselves during the weekend.”

In just its first round of donations, Agape provided 137 backpacks to students throughout the Brentwood school district. Recently, the organization has expanded its outreach to other school districts that have requested its assistance.

“In a few weeks, when schools reopen, we will be in Comsewogue school district, where we have been asked to provide 100 backpacks to their children,” Michalos said. 

She noted the name of her organization closely corresponds with her Greek roots and her stated mission. “‘Agape’ is a Greek word which roughly translates to the highest form of love,” she said, adding, “It’s unconditional love — love of God for man, man for God and love of your fellow man. So we thought it was apropos to name our organization Agape Meals.”

Father Elias (Lou) Nicholas, the presiding priest of the parish, was also on hand during the celebrations. He shared how the festival and the local AHEPA chapter promote Hellenism within the community.

“The greatest ideal of Hellenism is ‘philotimo,’ and it means the love of helping others,” Nicholas said. “That’s what AHEPA’s major role is: Helping in and out of the community, whether it’s with scholarships, with education, with feeding the poor … all those kinds of things.” He added, “Although they’re not connected to the church functionally, they do the same work.”

For Nicholas, the festival is the vehicle by which community members come together each year. He believes that it serves to remind people of their interconnectedness, instructing them on how to be better stewards of their community and people out in the world. 

“The whole point of being here is to help people, whether spiritually, materially or even mentally,” he said. “How can we help people in their lives? That’s what we’re here for.”

While AHEPA Chapter 319 is approximately 40 members strong, Iasilli and Damaskos emphasized that AHEPA actively welcomes new members. To learn more about the various programs this volunteer organization offers, visit www.ahepa319.org.