AMAA’s Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School and Community Center in Yerevan To Be Dedicated on October 8, 2014
BY EDWARD AVEDISIAN
It started as a simple gesture in August of 1994 on the occasion of my mother Shooshanig’s 90th birthday. She didn’t really want a party, but, since the family was going to go ahead with one anyway, her requests were to make it simple and to have no gifts because “I have everything I need and I could pass away tomorrow.” My siblings Paramaz, Zvart, Paul and I spent much time discussing the matter and reminiscing over her life to try to find some way to honor her life that would truly make her happy.
Both of our parents placed an extremely high value on education, what with our father’s early training for the priesthood and mother’s fond memories of her education in the German Missionary Orphanage in Kharpert, where she met so many of the friends with whom she would remain in contact for the rest of her life. Could we make an exceptional education and the opportunity to form lasting friendships a possibility for those who had little to look forward to? If we could make this happen, it would surely please her and us as well.
The celebration of Shooshanig’s 90th birthday was truly a momentous occasion, with over 100 people in attendance, including long-time friends from near and far. A representative from the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA) was also in attendance to help share the news of how we were going to honor her life and remember our late father, Khoren, both of whom, in spite of limited means, had given us so much for which to be thankful. And so the idea for the Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School was born. It would, we hoped, open soon in a poor neighborhood in Armenia, conforming to the standard of education as set forth by the Armenian Ministry of Education and operated by the AMAA.
The word “soon” took on a truly Armenian connotation as a protracted search for a suitable building ensued. We had looked long and hard in many areas when I got a call that the Malatya-Sepastya District (located about 15 miles southwest of Yerevan) would give us a free-use, 99-year lease on a Soviet-style building which had housed a kindergarten. It was pointed out that it was in a very poor, rough and tough neighborhood; without hesitation I replied, “Great, that’s exactly where the school should be.” The building had been closed for some years and was extremely dilapidated. After necessary repairs were made in order to get the school up and running, finally, after five years, on September 20, 1999, the Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School opened with a kindergarten of 75 students ̶ 25 each of 3-, 4- and 5-year olds. Yes, the school was now open; but the question was did it have a future?
The AMAA had hired a young and energetic Principal, Melanya Geghamyan, who espoused the highest standards of education. My wife Pamela and I met her the day before the school opened and she was more than just excited as something she had dreamt was about to become a reality. It was soon very clear that the school was gaining a reputation for excellence, as people were coming from all around the area to have their children enrolled in the school. However, the school was meant for the children in the depressed area in which it was put; and space was extremely limited.
As each year a new grade was being added on so that the students could continue their education, it became obvious that we would soon be out of space. With that I invited my good friend and colleague at the American University of Armenia, Dr. Mihran Agbabian, who was an engineer, to come and inspect the building. After a thorough inspection, I asked what needed to be done to both get the building in shape and to expand it. His remark in a word was “a bulldozer.” It was clear that a new facility would be needed soon and that was ten years ago. So off we went again, looking for land in the area.
Meanwhile, the school was continuing to gain in reputation, and was awarded a Gold Medal for the best administered school in all of Armenia by the Ministry of Education. This award is given only once every five years and was quite an honor for this young institution. In addition the school’s Russian Language Team took first prize two years in a row in country-wide competition. The French Language Team, the Math Team and the Dramatic Arts Group have also taken first prizes over the years.
It wasn’t until 2009 that a suitable piece of land was found and purchased for the school. By 2011 the school was bursting at the seams and every available inch of space was being utilized, to the point where, after the 9th grade, the students were parceled out to other high schools.
We had set out originally to have a first-class building and we had the plans drawn up for it. However, after some discussion with architect Ronald Altoon, Dr. Kenell Touryan and Richard Youatt, my accountant for the project, I concluded that given the success we had building the state-of-the-art Paramaz Avedisian Building at AUA (the American University of Armenia), we should continue and expand on those elements of sustainable design. With that, an international certification from LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) became our goal. Earlier, Jeanmarie Papelian had introduced me to the Armenian Ambassador to the United Nations, the Honorable Garen Nazarian. He was very interested in the idea and said he would help by arranging a meeting at the United Nations with the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) in hopes of garnering their support for the project. It turned out that the UNDP was more than just interested and gave us a grant for $50,000. They also funded a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, for me and Dr. Armen Gharibyan, our engineer and licensed LEED expert. The point of the visit was to see their new UN City Building which was close to completion. In inspecting it we would have the advantage of seeing how this new LEED building was being constructed and gain further knowledge for our own project.
However, going for LEED Certification didn’t come free as this added to the cost of the project; and it became very difficult to convince the AMAA Board to approve it. In addition to helping sustain the environment, the main advantage of LEED was the many thousands of dollars it would save the organization in annual operational expenses. The bottom line was that the added construction costs would be paid back in 5-7 years, but huge savings would continue to go forward every year. That feature carried the day and funding was approved; hence, this school will now become the first LEED-certified building, not only in Armenia, but in the entire region.
Madame Cihan Sultanoğlu, the UNDP Assistant Director for Europe and the CIS States, became more than just interested when she asked if there was an auditorium in the building and what its seating capacity was. When I told her that we would have an auditorium that seated 250 she quickly asked, “Can the UNDP hold its biennial regional meeting there?” I told her yes, that it would be an honor to have her and the entire regional delegation in our building for their meeting, the delegates of which come from countries extending from Portugal to Japan. As she explained, she wanted all the representatives to come, see, feel and move around in the reality of sustainable design, a low-carbon footprint and low-cost building. This AMAA Avedisian School would serve as the ideal model.
Putting this project together was possible because of the “dream team” committee that we have had. Most of this committee had experience working together in constructing the Paramaz Avedisian Building at AUA; and it didn’t take much to convince them to take on a new task. When I approached Faraj Yeretsyan to be our project manager, he emailed the following: “we confirm our commitment to excellence on the Avedisian School project; and as I have mentioned many times before, this project is our baby.”
The professional expertise and personal interest of Charles Bilezikian has been something none of us could duplicate. I met “Chuck” at an AMAA Board Meeting. I observed him sitting there with his arms folded across his chest, expressionless. It became quite apparent when he started speaking, that he had been listening intently. He was always soft spoken and would start by saying, “This is what I am hearing,” and would continue on with solutions to problems that were analytical, thorough and to the point.
A major development in this project has been the gift of the Krikor and Beatrice Bilezikian Building by Chuck in honor of his parents, which will house grades K-4 of the Avedisian School. With this addition, the Avedisian High School grew into the Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School and Community Center. The complex is now complete with seven interconnected.
In addition to Faraj and Chuck, our committee has been blessed with our Senior Advisor Ronald Altoon, Jeanmarie Papelian, our expert in many areas, Dr. Kenell Touryan in Conservation, and Richard Youatt, our Project Accountant. I would like to again mention Dr. Armen Gharibyan, who, although not on the committee, is certainly part of the dream team. What most don’t know is that Dr. Gharibyan was an AMAA and AGBU Scholarship student at AUA. He is one of those young and bright lights in Armenia that no one ever hears about but he is carrying an extremely heavy load in getting us to a LEED Silver Certificate. He has designed a unique solar system that will provide heat, hot water and power for the air conditioning. Nowhere in the world have all three been combined successfully. Last, but certainly not least, are the workers at the construction site, who feel that this is their building and continue to work each day with a dedication and expertise that is really something to experience. Hats off and kudos go to each of the above.
So what’s in the future for these poor students? Does education stop with a high school diploma? Thankfully not, because, if a student wishes, he or she can continue on to the American University of Armenia, tuition-free, as long as the entrance exam is passed. As a trustee of AUA, I look forward with pleasure, to the day when I can put a diploma in the hand of an Avedisian School student as he/she crosses the stage to graduate from AUA. Well done, Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian!
The Avedisian family pledged $5 million dollars towards this project. Please help the AMAA reach its goal of matching the Avedisian family’s pledge. Additonal information about Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School and Community Center can be found at www.amaa.org.