“It’s the most fun thing that I do”: our donor’s story

Text Author: Evgeniya Dolina
Photographer: Irina Brester, Constantine Kokenes

Meet Constantine Kokenes – our long-standing donor from the USA that’s been with us since the early months of the project. Being a doctor himself, Constantine has been volunteering on missions in Central America for years – but the founders of Health & Help still managed to surprise him when they first met.
We’ve asked Constantine to share his story of getting to know Health & Help – read on to follow his journey by seeing it with his own eyes!


More than 5 years ago I received a call from a friend.

“Hey, remember John Heers, the one who founded First Things Foundation? He’s saying there are some Russian doctors traveling through Atlanta. Do you think you can help them out?”

“Of course”, I said. They were welcome to stay at my house. Little did I know back then whom I was about to host.

So there they were, staying at my place for a week – Karina, barely 18. and Victoria, only 26 years old or so. They were already building their first clinic back then. No major organizations backing them, no huge sponsors or anything. I was simply astounded by the whole thing and very impressed. I mean, people just don’t do that. 25-year-olds just don’t do that. I am a doctor, too, and I go on missions, but with larger organizations handling it. Now imagine just saying “Let’s do this. Let’s build a clinic.”  The energy and the commitment of it, the passion that it takes… I’m struggling to find the right words, it’s just remarkable.

They raised money and convinced the locals to actually help them build the clinic. God  knows what they went through with the Guatemalan authorities, and I bet they had an even harder time in Nicaragua. But what I’ve never understood is how they keep their funding going and keep their supplies going. 

Every time I would go on my mission to Guatemala, they would ask me to take a suitcase of supplies for them. Which is quite an unreliable method of transporting supplies, don’t you agree? It’s a hit or miss, here and there. And yet it works for them. 

I guess what also fuels this whole thing up is youth. It’s a very young, very “Internet”, very blog-oriented phenomenon. This wouldn’t have happened 25 years ago, before the Internet. It simply wouldn’t have worked. But Victoria had a huge audience in Russia and certain exposure internationally, so she managed to find these people from around the world to support her. 

Did I think it was going to last? Well, I certainly hoped so, and I was genuinely surprised when they opened their second clinic in Nicaragua. At first, I thought it was a little too ambitious, but here you go – both clinics are working. 

Although she got quite a bit of criticism in Russia for putting money there apparently. So the staffing seems to be rather unique… But there are other young people who are otherwise unattached. And that might be a phenomenon, young people today who delay or don’t… I mean Victoria was never going to get married until she met Andrew and everything changed, you know. Maybe they (young people) don’t have to put down the roots that people have traditionally done, so they are freer I guess to go and do things like this. So anyway to your question, did I think it was gonna last? Well, I certainly hoped so and I was surprised by the second clinic in Nicaragua, and quite frankly I thought this expansion was a little ambitious, but who knows, I guess it’s working. 

You know, somehow they make everything work, and God looks after them. I don’t even know how to explain it. I know they hitchhiked all the way through Mexico to get to Guatemala. I still don’t know how they pulled it off. 

I’ve been to Guatemala on my missions many times, but it’s always Antigua and lake Atitlan. Never had a chance to travel far enough to visit the clinics, but I really do want to. I hope I get a chance to do it when Victoria or Karina is there. But I know Victoria’s got kids now, so it might be tricky for her. I’ve been to her wedding, by the way. 

I have been on volunteer missions myself for 12 years now, and I’m not stopping any time soon. Now that I’m 64 and semi-retired, I can come down and stay there for a couple of months. I love my mission hospital in Honduras and the people are very sweet and very energetic. I love Guatemala, it’s a beautiful country. The area between Guatemala City and Lake Atitlan is just beautiful. And the people that I have in Guatemala are also very special.

It all started with an earthquake in Hait back in 2010. I had always vaguely thought about doing volunteer missions before, but it was not until this catastrophic natural disaster happened that I knew I had to go. I always found that’s always the best motivation for doing anything when there is a need, and you respond to that need. So we all went and that was my first mission, and then I heard they needed a physiologist in Honduras shortly after… And so it all started from there. I have volunteered in three countries so far. But certainly, I have traveled to far more destinations. 

My favorite destination has always been Greece. After all, I’m Greek and I speak the language fluently. But I have been to all over Europe, too, including Eastern European countries – even Czechoslovakia back when it existed during the communist times, which was very interesting. I also sing Byzantine chant on a certain level, and that took me to destinations like Brazil and Russia.

My kids are in their early thirties now, all three. My daughter is a journalist, and then one of my sons is an engineer and another one is now looking to get into the medical field. He was in the army for a few years, but now he wants to work in healthcare, he is studying for that now and he has even gone on a mission to Honduras once to help the doctors there. Hopefully, at some point, we’ll be able to do these missions together. 

By helping others, I gain a sense of great satisfaction that is deeper than just happiness. I happen to have skills that are useful, and I love the whole volunteer spirit. When we go down there, we are a team of people that pave their way, leave their job, leave their homes, and travel far away to help other people. You drop your ego at the door because we are all down here for a purpose that binds us. Also, as an Orthodox Christian, I feel like helping others is obviously what we are commanded to do and that’s part of loving others. 

I’ve been blessed to have had a good medical practice, so I have accumulated enough assets to help others. So I’d like to spend the rest of my life doing it. It’s just the most fun that I do.

If you have been inspired by the story of Constantine, you are always welcome to join the community of our amazing donors by donating to our project.
For volunteering opportunities with Health & Help, check out our vacancies – we are always happy to hear from you!

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