Greece may be one of the oldest civilizations in the world but it was looking fresh-faced Sunday when it introduced 35-year-old Chris Roussakis as the youngest board president in the history of the Hellenic Community of Ottawa.
Not only is Roussakis under the age of 40, but so are half of the volunteers on the 14-member board. “This will probably be one of the youngest boards that we’ve had in a long time,” said Roussakis in an interview.
Roussakis is a partner in digital marketing and web design agency WebMarketers and co-founder and chief creative director of its in-house production team, Phantom Productions. Together, the companies employ 34 people and have a client list that includes the Ottawa Senators, Carleton University, Ottawa Heart Institute and U.S. Embassy.
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Roussakis, who was born and raised in Ottawa, remains proud of his Greek heritage. His father came to Canada as a young child in the 1950s, arriving by ship to Pier 21 in Halifax.
“Anytime you talk to a Greek, they love to tell you that they’re Greek,” said Roussakis. “For me, I’ve always felt that way, and to be president of the community is — I can’t even put it into words. It almost brings me to tears, getting this opportunity.”
Roussakis has grown closer to the Hellenic Community of Ottawa in recent years, mostly through the volunteer consulting work he’s been doing for the non-profit organization’s popular summer festival GreekFest. It’s a relationship he increasingly values as he gets older and starts to settle down.
“I think, for me, it’s very important that I build a foundation that I can share with my family,” said the new father.
Roussakis said the board’s first order of business will be to eliminate the debt load, for fear that it could become their Achilles’ heel. “COVID wasn’t helpful,” said Roussakis of the pandemic’s negative impact on the Hellenic Event Centre located on Prince of Wales Drive. He chose not to disclose the amount of the debt the organization is facing, except to say it’s “not in the millions”.
If the Hellenic Community of Ottawa is going to survive in the long run, it needs to be run more like a business, he opined. “It’s not just about being profitable in such a way that we’re flush with cash but profitable in a way where we’re sustainable for generations to come,” said Roussakis, who has a number of business strategies he hopes to implement.
It’s necessary for the event centre to increase its number of bookings and to drive more traffic into its banquet space, he added. The board will also be looking to develop a piece of land that the Hellenic Community owns. “It’s something we’re going to explore sooner than later, to see what the possibilities are,” said Roussakis, who supports the addition of rental properties to provide ongoing revenue for the Hellenic Community.
Roussakis said the organization will have to expand its paid membership, which currently has 1,000-plus individuals and families. He wants to attract a younger generation of supporters to replace the aging demographic (last year, 80 of its older members passed away, he noted).
“A new cohort of members is to our benefit,” said Roussakis, who has some recruitment ideas, including the introduction of business discount cards involving Greek-owned businesses. “I’m not saying you need to eat Greek food every day but if I need a certain service, I should be able to look at a directory and be, like, ‘Okay, I know somebody from my community that I can call upon to help me’.”
Also a priority for Roussakis is raising his public profile. Priest Alex Michalopulos, better known as Father Alex, has been the face of the Hellenic Community of Ottawa and its Greek Orthodox church for more than 30 years.
“He’s, like, ‘Listen, I’ve had my Kodak moment’,” explained Roussakis, who’s worried Father Alex is being stretched too thin. Early in the pandemic, the priest became dangerously ill with COVID.
The priest often has to travel to places such as Cornwall, Brockville and Pembroke to perform his religious duties, and there’s always a demand for his attention at community gatherings, said Roussakis.
Roussakis would like to alleviate some of the pressure put on Father Alex by possibly bringinging in a second priest. He’s also willing to help with some of the non-religious responsibilities that currently fall to their spiritual leader.
“I want to make it so that the community feels they can rely on me, that they feel they can come to me with their problems and their needs,” he said.
The Hellenic Community of Ottawa is nearly 100 years old. It was created in 1929 as a way of preserving and promoting the culture, language, history and religion of Greek immigrants who came to Canada for a better life for them and their families.
Along with GreekFest, it hosts its popular Gold Plate Dinner. Founded in 1985, the fundraising dinner was chaired for 30 years by Steve Ramphos from property management, commercial real estate and apartment rental company District Realty. It’s now led by Aik Aliferis and Nick Pantieras from commercial real estate brokerage Marcus & Millichap. The dinner, which has raised more than $2 million over the years, also benefits the Heart Institute.
Ottawa-Gatineau has the fourth-largest Greek population in Canada, after Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. That’s according to the most recent census, which also reported 8,550 residents of Greek ancestry in the region.
Said Roussakis: “It’s not as if we can go out there and run a million-dollar advertising campaign in the city and say to every Greek: ‘Come and get your membership’. That’s not something we can afford to do. I have to go knocking on doors.
“It’s going to take some time but I’m very optimistic that this is going to be a thriving community until I’m six feet under,” he added. “At the end of the day, there is a strong base of young people in our community that can definitely take this community forward for generations.”