BY TALEEN BABAYAN
“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” – Proverbs 3:27
The spirited cities of Yerevan and Los Angeles were inextricably linked at the Agape Circle’s 6th Annual Luncheon at Castaway Restaurant’s Starlight Room in a philanthropic event that both raised and distributed funds for noteworthy organizations, from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to YWCA Glendale to Our Lady of Armenia. The luncheon was held on Thursday, October 17 in Burbank, CA under the auspices of Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America.
Among the highlights of the engaging afternoon, which was hosted by Sato Yessayan in memory of her mother Araxi Barooni, included the honoring of community members, learning about the global reach of Agape Circle’s donations, as well as a relevant panel discussion on women, family, and health, from local professionals in the field.
In his keynote address, Dr. Thomas Lee, Director of the Vision Center at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, traced the medical advances he initiated in Armenia since his very first trip to the country in 2009 with the Armenian Eyecare Project. Through the partnership and generosity of the Agape Circle, $100,000 was donated to CHLA, in turn serving Armenia, under the guidance of Archbishop Hovnan Derderian.
“We ensure that everything we do makes an impact,” said Dr. Lee, who expanded his outreach work in Armenia after his initial mission trip through telesurgery mentoring by setting up remote guidance to stream surgeries out of Yerevan’s operating rooms, and inviting doctors from Armenia to be trained at CHLA. Staying current with advances in technology, Dr. Lee now crowdsources multiple doctors from around the world on conference calls in a partnership with Microsoft, while also establishing advanced training for nurses through the same system. “Our future relies on the health of our children.”
One stark observation of Dr. Lee’s spearheaded his latest venture, “Avetis” (Good News), which provides electronic health records for Armenia’s children.
“I noticed that the hospitals in Armenia didn’t have electronic records and there was a lack of data collection on patients,” said Dr. Lee. “We decided that if we were going to create this content, then we had to set up a digital health platform for the children.”
He went back into action, collecting and storing information digitally on the weight, drug allergies, and diseases of 22,000 Armenian children that are now in the system through the Cloud, enhancing the country as a whole as it “gives the government and the Ministry of Health data on the country’s population.”
“If you have a compelling mission, getting other people to come on board is not that difficult,” said Dr. Lee, who along with 12 CHLA colleagues flew to Yerevan last summer with a coding team and met with the Deputy Minister of Education and Deputy Minister of Health, as well as President Armen Sarkissian, to launch this venture in collaboration.
Prompted to travel to Armenia a decade ago to help diagnose and treat an “alarmingly high rate” of Retinopathy of Prematurity – a complex and aggressive blinding disease that was affecting one third of Armenian premature infants – Dr. Lee maintains his ties to the country through ongoing medical trips and missions while building relationships with physicians and healthcare providers on the ground. In recognition for his efforts, he was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, Barbara M. Korsch Award for Medical Education (CHLA), Morris and Mary Press Humanism Award (CHLA) and Humanitarian of the Year Award (Western Union and Microsoft Health Innovation Award).
“We all love our children so deeply there’s no reason parents in Yerevan can’t experience the same type of care we get here in Los Angeles,” said Dr. Lee. “For me, that’s been the hallmark of why I became a doctor.”
Expressing his gratitude to the Armenian community, the Western Diocese and Agape Circle, Dr. Lee emphasized the significance of a communal society.
“I’ve come to understand the power and importance of community, because it is this community you’ve created that’s making a difference for populations of children as well as individuals like myself,” concluded Dr. Lee.
Expanding on the theme of humanitarian endeavors, the Heart of Agape Award was given to Marlene Yerevanian for her contributions to Our Lady of Armenia, a non-profit that secures the development of orphaned, abandoned, and needy children in the homeland. A special video presentation, filmed on site in Gyumri, highlighted Marlene’s efforts and generosity since her first visit in 2006. Agape Circle Chairlady Alice Chakrian presented the award to Marlene, along with a $2,000 contribution to benefit the organization that provides mental, spiritual, social and educational development for children and teenagers, with the goal of making them independent and self-sufficient future citizens of the homeland.
“It is an orphanage, but a better name is a House of Love,” said Marlene, thanking her family and friends for their encouragement and support of the organization. “The children are happy, strong and healthy, because that house is filled with love, and I encourage all of you to visit the home, because it is a life-changing experience.”
“We’ve been inspired by the incredible mission work that Our Lady of Armenia has accomplished by putting smiles on these children’s faces,” said Archbishop Derderian. “Over the years I’ve observed Marlene’s charitable work that she has done as a Christian filled with humility, love and a compassionate heart.”
During the project presentation segment of the program, Alice announced a $10,000 contribution to Tara Peterson, Executive Director of the YWCA Glendale, noting that Agape Circle is “honored to be part of the mission of YWCA because we want every woman who goes there to feel love and dignity.”
In response to the donation, Tara said she was “deeply grateful and emotional” and felt “inspired” by Dr. Lee’s mission work, spurring her thoughts about making a connection between the Women’s Support Center in Armenia and how the YWCA Glendale “can be a resource to women and children in Armenia.”
“I know this contribution will go a long way,” said Peterson, stating that the funds will be earmarked for the renovation of the shelter’s backyard to provide a peaceful outdoor space for women and children. “We are going to name it the Agape Circle Garden of Hope, because it will provide women and children with a sense of pride.”
“Each and every one of us here are so thankful for what you do, because it’s unacceptable to see one woman being abused, as God forbid that,” said Archbishop Derderian. “You’ve responded to God’s call and we thank you for inviting us to be a partner in your most God- pleasing mission.”
A thought-provoking panel discussion, led by moderator Eileen Keusseyan, titled, “What Women Really Want to Talk About,” featured Nora Chitilian, MS, LMFT, Lisa Arslanian, PsyD, Aida Torosyan, IIN Certified Holistic Life Coach and Stella Baghdassarian, DDS, HHC, who explored a variety of topics related to family, women and health.
The invocation by Rev. Khajag Shahbazyan commenced the luncheon, followed by welcoming remarks by co-chairs Armine Bedrossian and Peggy Kankababian, who emphasized the far-reaching impact of the organization’s work that has been led by “divine love” as the Agape Circle continues to expand its family.
“We hope you take home with you a sliver of compassion and energy you witness today,” said Peggy. “Please open your heart and help us give to those who are in such need of assistance.”
Honing in on Dr. Lee’s work, the co-chairs spoke of his “compassion” by providing noninvasive and surgical treatment to children in Armenia suffering from retinal diseases, essentially “saving newborns from going blind.”
Armine hailed the “direction, encouragement and support” of Archbishop Derderian, who has led Agape Circle to new heights. “Let’s strengthen and spread our Agape Family,” she concluded.
Following a gift presentation to Sato for her generosity in hosting the event and providing a moment of silence in honor of her mother’s passing, Archbishop Derderian reflected on the great strides the Agape Circle has made since its founding, including “outreach programs and social services that have been elevated to a new level, mobilizing all the segments of the community in partnership.”
“The collective work of the Agape Circle family has brought goodness to people’s lives,” said Archbishop Derderian, who noted that ‘agape’ is a Greek word that means universal, unconditional love that transcends and serves regardless of circumstances. “Agape is the term that defines God’s immeasurable and incomparable love for humanity and helping the less fortunate.”
Over the last 5 years, Agape Circle has donated $100,000 to CHLA to support The Vision Center, Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases, and Newborn and Infant Critical Care Unit, with another ongoing $50,000 pledge commitment; distributed gift cards to 50 needy families for the Christmas from the Hearts initiative and $2,500 to the Homeless Prevention Project, sponsored through the Glendale Chapter of the Armenian Relief Society; contributed close to $20,000 to the St. Peter Armenian Church and St. Leon Armenian Cathedral; gifted $5,000 to the Starkey Hearing Foundation; contributed $10,000 for YWCA Glendale Women’s Shelter Garden Renovation; and donated $2,000 to Our Lady of Armenia.
“Giving is a virtue and those who give from their hearts and souls make the community a better place in the eyes of God,” said Archbishop Derderian. “With much gratitude today we honor those institutions and individuals that chose us as their missionary partners in sowing the good seeds of charity and giving.”
The Agape Circle committee members include Alice Chakrian, Rev. Khajag Shahbazyan, Armine Bedrossian, Celene Culhaoglu, Silva Derbalian, Angie Garibyan, Vicki Grigorian, Peggy Kankababian, Eileen Keusseyan, Silva Sepetjian, Aida Sethian, Maggie Sumian, Silvana Vartanian and Sato Yessayan. For more information, visit the website.