The 15th annual AYF Youth Corps project in Armenia this year successfully managed, for a second time, to run a day camp for 150 underprivileged children in Gyumri. Our goal was to invest in the children of Armenia, because we believe children are our future.
Our first task was to help strengthen their love of country—something their textbooks do little justice to in the one page set aside for the first Republic of Armenia. We sought to instill pride among the campers about the forefathers of their republic–the Aram Manougians and Antranig Ouzounians. We taught them the value of land and the shame behind throwing their trash on their streets, which Armenians in Karabakh fought to the death to defend. Every day, we worked to explain the importance of nature and what the future of this country will be like if they continued to take it for granted.
We also taught them practical skills. We split them into different skill levels and taught them English–from basic greetings to conversational English. At arts and crafts, campers were given an opportunity to discover unknown talents and hone their artistic skills. Daily karate lessons, meanwhile, became a source of pride, and inspiration for many of the campers, whose confidence was boosted after mastering new techniques after days of practice.
The song competition, held at the end of each session, was another unforgettable experience for us. Seeing each group’s members work together to practice their song seemed to us a new beginning for Armenia. Cooperation often takes a back seat to individualism here, but not during the song competition, where reliance and trust in the rest of your team is vital to successfully singing a song and performing a dance.
Most amazing of all, however, was the experience of reading each and every essay turned in by our campers during the “My Fatherland” essay competition, in which each camper wrote about their connection to Armenia.
Camp Gyumri gave these kids a truly unique place to learn, play and grow—a place where value was place on respect, equality, and tolerance and not on corruption, bribery and cheating. With television shows glorifying mafia bosses who lie, cheat, steal and kill for power and glory, it is very difficult to expect Armenia’s youth to follow a different path. But we set out to dispel those false values. All in all, it was about what we could give to the future of Armenia based on the opportunities we have had growing up in the “West.”
Finding common language with the children was difficult at first, given our differences in language and culture. But within the first few days, those barriers broke down, as do most artificial barriers.
For six of the nine youth corps members, it was their first trip to Armenia, yet each of them said, multiple times throughout the trip, that they were finally home. It’s hard not to feel at home when you are welcomed with open arms. The family we stayed with in Gyumri took care of us as if we were their own. When one of us was sick, the mother, Digin Lilig, would take tea and medicine upstairs at least 5 times a day to make sure we would get better quick. She would talk to our parents over the phone and tell them how excited she was to have us and how she loved us and would make coffee or tea every morning depending on what each individual preferred that day. The local ARF also made every effort to make sure we were happy and comfortable, while working in Gyumri.
True, Armenia is not a perfect paradise, where we can all live comfortably like kings. That there are problems all around is obvious for anyone to see. But it is our homeland, and most important of all, it’s a place where we can make a difference, and start our lives anew.
Knowing that we were a positive influence on the lives of those 150 children in Gyumri is priceless, especially when considering that 40 of the campers signed up for the local badanegan, where they will spend their weekends throughout the year with their new friends in a fun and safe environment.
Making all of this a reality, however, was no easy task. It took an entire year of fundraising by local AYF chapter in the Western USA, as well as the Youth Corps central committee, to make this program a success. Many people helped make Youth Corps 2009 a reality, from friends and family who attended every breakfast and carwash fundraiser to support the program, to members of the community who invested in our ambitious goals.
In hopes of expanding the program’s reach and effectiveness, we made a major push this year to publicize our work and activities through so our supporters can see, first hand, all the great work we did—and can do even further–in Armenia. We maintained a blog on Asbarez.com, gave interviews with local and Diaspora TV, newspapers and radio stations. We also worked with local non-profit organizations such as Birthright Armenia and the Civilitas Foundation to help raise awareness of the many opportunities available for Diasporan Armenians to help in Armenia’s development.
In order to extend our impact, we must expand our program beyond just one city—beyond 150 campers. And we have begun to do just that. Planning is under way to establish a second camp in another of Armenia’s less developed regions.
We have much work to do in Armenia and we will be sharing that work with you—our friends, family, and community—in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Please spread the word about Youth Corps as much as possible so we can work together with our compatriots back home to help create the Armenia we all want to see our futures in!