GYUMRI–Seven young Armenians from Southern California have decided to spend their summer as volunteers in Armenia running a day camp for underprivileged kids in the Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri.
Organized by the AYF’s Youth Corps, the camp opened its doors on Monday, accepting 40 children for its first session. Word spread quickly around town and on Tuesday twice as many campers turned out, eager to sign up and meet the diasporans who dedicated their summers to fly half way around the world to open a day camp for children in Armenia.
The day camp, which operates five days a week, is managed and run solely by a team of 7 Armenian American College students–Talar Boyajian, Sahag Yedalian, Hilton Sorkazian, Ani Petrossian, Anahid Yahjian, Nina Dangourian and Vache Thomassian.
The seven Youth Corps volunteers are working as camp counselors, offering children, ages 10-15, English language courses, organized sports activities, song and dance lessons and arts and crafts classes. In addition, campers are also taken on weekly field trips, the first of which was a trip to a local museum on Thursday.
“Our mission this summer is simple,” explained Thomassian, the group’s leader. “We want to connect Armenians in the Diaspora with Armenians in the homeland. “Through this day camp, Youth Corps can do just that and also provide direct assistance to underprivileged youth–Armenia’s most valuable and vulnerable citizens.”
“It’s only been a couple of days and you can already see the bond forming between our campers and the Youth Corps counselors,” Boyajian added. “This really expresses a connection between Armenians despite their geographic origins.”
“In the Diaspora, we have grown accustomed to the idea that Armenian youth activism starts and ends with educational lectures and protests, but that’s just one small aspect of what it means to be an involved Armenian,” Yedalian remarked. “When you send money to Armenia, the people only see the money. But when you come here, role up your sleeves and help, they see that Armenians in the Diaspora care.”
Taking time to experience Armenia as more than just a tourist is very important, they all agreed during a 2 a.m. group interview over the phone. Quieting the others, Dangourian grabbed the phone and stressed that she joined the Youth Corps team because she wanted to experience Armenia not as a tourist but as an Armenian.
“I wanted to build connections with the people here. As a camp counselor I am doing just that,” Yahjian said, echoing Dangourian’s sentiments.
“You really feel that this is your homeland after spending an entire day working and playing with the campers.” exclaimed Sorkazian, who is in Armenia for the first time this summer. “I am literally investing my time, energy and talents into my country and my people.”
“The people here are really reaching out to us, coming up to us on the streets to talk and thank us for opening the camp,” Thomassian added. “We’re doing something right here.”
Landing in Yerevan on July 17, the Youth Corps team spent a week exploring Armenia and Karabakh before arriving at Gyumri where they began quickly converting a local school into their camp ground. In the day’s leading up to the camps opening, the seven volunteers worked around the clock to prepare the facilities where they would bring to life a day camp.
“We had spent months planning the camp, working in coordination with the AYF in Armenia to find a camp site, create a curriculum, and work out all the logistics,” explained Youth Corps Chairperson Sose Thomassian. “That took a lot of work, but the most challenging part of organizing this year’s Youth Corps mission was figuring out how we were going to fund the venture.”
Many thought the project was too big for a committee of young volunteers to take on, she explained, but a lot of dedicated people, sacrificed their time and came together to help raise the money needed to make the camp possible.
“Funding for the camp was done the old fashioned way,” explained Youth Corps alumni and committee member Veronica Siranosian at a car wash in Pasadena two weeks before the group left for Armenia. “We held car-washes at gas stations, hosted breakfasts at community centers, sold CDs and T-shirts from the trunks of our cars to friends and family at churches, community centers, the Navasartian Games and all types of community events.”
When asked why she volunteered to help with this year’s program, Siranosian paused momentarily and asked: “isn’t it obvious?” Youth Corps changed her life, she said. “It gave me a chance to make a difference in Armenia. Some of my best memories are from laying bricks with my friends in a Karabakh village.”
The AYF Youth Corps program is open to all youth over the age of 18 who are motivated and enthusiastic about helping Armenia. The program gives dedicated individuals a unique opportunity to spend approximately six weeks in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, working with people on the ground to make a tangible contribution to the homeland.