BY ALINA SOOKASIAN
In the midst of all the Navasartian Games’ excitement, while nearly the entire Armenian community of Southern California and beyond was cheering for their athletes and enjoying the Diaspora’s largest Armenian Festival, my fellow Youth Corps members and I were on a mission to raise as much money as we could to make our camp for the kids in Gyumri possible.
I was expecting this task to be the furthest thing from pleasant. I myself have been a Homenetmen athlete for a decade and have spent the past years at the Games doing nothing but watching basketball, eating soujoukh sandwiches, and having fun with my friends. To think that this year, I had to work instead of play, was daunting to say the least.
Over the course of the four-day festival, However, I came to realize that I would not have been anywhere else in the world (other than Camp Gyumri of course!) than at Birmingham High School for hours on end, scrambling around, trying to sell keychains, banners, books, bracelets, and license plate frames to festival goers.
Truth be told, each and every encounter I had–from the Armenian grandparents applauding my group’s efforts, to the young couple asking to hear more about Youth Corps–were worth missing every Navasartian Game and more. I can remember one encounter vividly; We approached an old man and tried to explain to him our mission in Gyumri so as to ask for a donation. But as soon as he heard that we would be on our way to Armenia in a week to volunteer, before even hearing the rest of our sentence, he took out a ten-dollar bill and placed it in my hand, followed by him placing his own hand on mine to close in the money. I had no idea who this man was, no relationship with him. I had never seen this man in my life; but at that moment, I felt as though I could be his granddaughter and he was proud of me for sacrificing my summer vacation and yearning to go to Armenia to work with local youth at a camp. “Hajoghootyoon aghjeegus” are the words that he left me with.
We ran into a few scenarios as well which were a bit silly. Someone refused to buy anything from us, and completely disregarding our mission of helping kids in Armenia, took advantage of the situation and tried selling us his product which was much more expensive than our $5 pins or $6 dollar bracelets. In contrast, one lady told us to run back to the AYF table and grab four more bracelets because she wanted to buy more, “Anything for Youth Corps and Hayastan!” she said.
The funniest moments of my first night were of some of the excuses we got from people who did not want to buy anything from us: “Come back tomorrow and I will buy from you,” one man sitting at the tables in front of the stage told us. I really hope he didn’t believe that we would be able to find him again today. “The blue beads are not lined up on this hamreech,” another man claimed. One woman told us that she would not support us because she was upporting her son who is doing a similar thing in Hayastan. She refused even when we encouraged her to support both for the sake of our motherland. “I don’t have a car,” said another man when we showed him our license plate frames.
The most inspiring episode of the weekend, however, came when we met a person known by everyone as Jhoojhoo. We met Jhoojhoo by sheer chance, when two Youth Corps participants tried to sell license plate frames to her. Rather than turn our members away or give them the $10 donation they were asking for, Jhoojhoo turned to her 3 friends and told them to reach deep into their pockets to “help the kids going to Armenia for a good cause.” And help they did, along with the 50 or so other people she introduced to our cause that weekend.
This kind hearted, energetic woman turned out to be a legend in Homenetmen. She was the Ararat chapter’s most loved and admired volunteer. Known for her unparalleled generosity, activism, and humor, Jhoojhoo had helped so many people and causes in her day, that it would be hard to come across a soul she had not touched in a positive way. For two evenings in a row, Jhoojhoo dropped everything to help us, touring the crowd with our groups, making introductions and encouraging her friends to donate all the money they had in their pockets for our mission. It’s memories like these and people like Jhoojhoo that I will never forget.
All in all, the weekend was very successful. We introduced hundreds of people to Youth Corps and raised a good amount of money for our program–all while having fun and bonding with each other. Best of all we got to meet a bunch of people who supported our mission and gave us encouraging words to take with us on our trip.
This experience made me realize how important and respected the Youth Corps program is and conversely, how vital our community is in helping make the program a reality. People I had never even met before were telling me how proud and happy they were that I was in Youth Corps.
As if I wasn’t excited enough to go on this trip before, after this weekend, I am ten times more excited.
Even though only ten of us are traveling to Armenia, I am looking forward to coming back as a huge family, unfortunately having to leave behind our Gyumri family.