- Associated Press - Sunday, May 3, 2015

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - Sixteen-year-old Zoe Fokakis is not your average teenager. The Presbyterian Christian School junior has plenty of friends her own age and she participates in lots of school activities, but her favorite thing to do just might be playing the piano for elderly nursing home residents.

“When I was in seventh grade, I decided I wanted to be a geriatrician,” Fokakis said. “I’ve always had a heart for the elderly. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember.

“My grandfather has a debilitating disease similar to Parkinson’s, and I don’t want anyone to go through that. I want to be able to help.”

Fokakis had been playing piano off and on at nursing homes during her junior high years, but she felt called to do something more when she was in ninth grade.

“A voice in my head said, ‘Why not do something now?’ she said. “I started praying about it, but I couldn’t even drive yet.”

Fokakis said she felt the need to make a big difference in elderly people’s lives and decided to raise money and start a nonprofit. She came up with a name for her organization - Eleos: Messengers of Mercy.

“My dad’s side of the family is Greek and I wanted to tie something that I am into it,” she said. “I came across ‘Eleos,’ which is an ancient Greek word which means ‘compassion’ and ‘keeping our covenant with God.’

Fokakis and her mother put in the long hours of detail-oriented work needed to get Eleos nonprofit status with the state, which was achieved in November 2013. Then in May 2014, they took on another gigantic project - planning a 5K run to raise money for Eleos.

Fokakis’ mother Lisa said they got a lot of help.

“The 5K was definitely a big deal,” she said. “Not only are we not runners, we had never even been to one as an observer. A lady from our church sent Zoe a step-by-step list of what to do.”

Pastor Dwayne Higgason, with Grace Temple, where Fokakis goes to church, also lent a hand. He was impressed by how Fokakis ran things.

“She was very organized and on top of things,” he said. “All of us who were helping her knew our jobs, and what she expected of us.

The 5K raised $3,000.

Since then, Fokakis has been keeping the coffers filled with donations she gets from collection boxes she has set up at merchants in Forrest and Lamar counties. The box includes a detailed post card explaining what Eleos is.

“We collect the money and then we use that to make the lives of nursing home residents a better experience,” Fokakis said.

She gets a list each month of residents’ birthdays from the activities director at Hattiesburg Health and Rehab.

“We’ll deliver gifts to their room,” Fokakis said. “My personal favorite is an extra large print King James Bible we got for one man.”

Lisa Richardson, activities director at the rehab, appreciates the things Fokakis does for the residents.

“She does a lot of good deeds around here,” Richardson said. “She’s really compassionate. She took over the Birthday Club. I send her an email and she gets what (they) need and she passes (the gifts) out.”

Richardson said before Fokakis, the residents didn’t get presents for their birthday.

“Now they’re expecting something for their birthday,” she said. “They’re totally excited when their birthday comes around.”

Neighbor Robert Touchstone is a big fan of Fokakis. He’s also a contributor to Eleos.

“I thought it was unique for a girl her age - many times they’re not interested in older people,” he said. “I felt it was extraordinary. It’s a labor of love.”

Fokakis said she doesn’t think it’s weird for a girl her age to enjoy spending time with elderly people.

“I know that at some point, that’s going to be my grandparents, my parents and my generation,” she said. “We have to fix what’s wrong as far as nursing homes - the way they’re run - people not wanting to visit.”

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, https://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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