Volunteerism in The Homeland – Part III: Birthright Armenia Alumni: Ambassadors of Love


Alumna Diana Ovsepian held a book drive.

By Lisa Manookian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — In this third and final part of the series, we showcase Birthright Armenia’s alumni.

In the past six years, more than 500 young adults have passed through Birthright Armenia’s doors from 26 different countries. These “ambassadors of love” presently serve as many of the leaders in today’s local Armenian communities throughout the world.

The Alumni Committee of Birthright Armenia works closely with the organization in recruiting new volunteers through local community presentations, raising funds via their own Alumni Give Back Fund for Birthright Armenia and the organizations with which they intern, and implementing “Next Step” projects that they create for Armenia’s direct benefit. In 2010 alone, over 20 outreach presentations were given on four continents at schools, churches and other community events. This collaborative relationship between the organization and its alumni speaks volumes about the quality of Birthright Armenia’s program and its ability to perpetuate its mission.

Leadership is a trait stressed by the alumni organization and is eminently displayed by Birthright Armenia Alumni Committee president, Tania Sahakian. As a volunteer in 2005, she interned with the Armenia Fund and upon her return, has spent the last six years assisting the Armenia Fund telethon, coordinating many of the volunteers who man the phones for the donations which pour in worldwide. Actively involved with the AGBU Young Professionals is Colette Seter, a graduate student at Temple University pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology. She was a 2005 Armenian Assembly intern, whose participation through Birthright Armenia allowed her the best of both worlds, to immerse herself in the many opportunities offered by the organization and share in the Armenian Assembly experience. She was placed with the Armenian Ministry of Health and worked in the Statistical Division on a USAID project, which was conducting an Armenian demographic health survey that year.

This past year, regional chapters were created throughout the US, Canada, Argentina, Europe and Lebanon, and the alumni committee recently launched a global “I Love Armenia” campaign, kicking off its first event in Philadelphia with the help of the AGBU Young Professionals. The successful event drew more than 55 people. The evening marked the beginning of a nationwide grassroots effort by alumni, creating a platform for people to share experiences and disseminate information on how traveling to and working in Armenia as a volunteer can be both meaningful and rewarding. Additional presentations will follow in Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles and Montreal in the coming months.

Fundraising is another key component. Many alumni keep in touch with the organizations they served and find some way of giving back. Some of the funds raised go back to Birthright Armenia to allow for new volunteers to embark on their own journey of self-discovery and some are earmarked for special causes spearheaded by alums.

In the fall of 2010, Boston alumna Ashley Howard interned for three months with WarmHearth, a long- term group home for adults with disabilities, whose artistic talents she came to admire. She returned home with several hundred pieces of jewelry, needlework, wall hangings and Christmas ornaments — all handmade by the residents — which she has been selling through various fundraisers in the local Boston area. The money raised will go towards assisting the residents with their daily necessities, including medicine. She plans to continue fundraising for the home to help the staff get better trained in assisting those with special needs and to help the home’s long-term goal of expanding to allow for more adult residents with disabilities to live with dignity. Sophia Malkasian, a volunteer from Oregon, who interned with the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC), personally raised $30,000 from family and friends so that her host family in Yeghegnadzor, who had been living in a demolished school, could have a home of their own.

AVC alumnus Ric Gazarian volunteered in 2003 and 2009, with the Zatik Orphanage and Manana, a non-profit educational and cultural NGO, both in Yerevan. He has returned every year since 2004 to host a yearly festival at the orphanage. He has also led fundraising efforts on behalf of both organizations. For the festival at Zatik, Gazarian teams up with local Armenian businesses to provide food, games and music for the more than 60 children who look forward to welcoming back a mentor and friend who taught them English during his four-month stay. To Gazarian, they are his extended family. But it didn’t stop there. This past August, Gazarian took part in the “Caucasian Challenge,” a 7,000-kilometer, crosscountry challenge spanning two weeks in nine countries to raise money for Zatik, Manana and AVC. As a participant among 20 world teams, he began his journey in Budapest, Hungary, through the Balkans, Greece, along the northern coast of Turkey, through Georgia and Karabagh, finishing in Yerevan. In the end, he raised just under $9,000, which he split evenly amongst the three organizations.

The Next Step Alumni Fund is another priority for alums. Competitive grants of up to $2,500 are awarded to alumni for the implementation of a project directly benefiting Armenia, although the project does not have to take place in Armenia. To date, eight alumni “Next Steps” have been implemented for $2,500 each, cumulatively leveraging over $90,000 in outside resources. Alumni create and submit a proposal to their peers on the Alumni Committee, who review it and make recommendations to the Board of Directors on funding. Alum Diana Ovsepian’s 2010 project was titled “Library as the Center of Civil Society.” Her initial goal was to collect 3,000 books (written in English, Armenian and Russian) to stack 10 public libraries in each region of Armenia. In the end, over 8,000 books were collected and shipped. Some examples of other successful “Next Steps” include: Armen Kherlopian (creation of a healthcare and dental clinic at Our Lady of Armenia summer camp in Tsahkadzor for vulnerable children); Tamara Shahabian (“Artworks for Armenia,” which successfully staged US exhibitions of Armenian children’s artwork from several regions of Armenia, with proceeds going back to the children’s respective schools to fund computers and other necessary art supplies); Brandon Kandarian (preparation/ distribution of multi-lingual public health HIV/AIDS Awareness materials in conjunction with the public health department of the American University of Armenia) and Nelli Martirosyan (implementation of various youth development projects in the village of Tsmakahogh in Nagorno Karabagh, stressing the importance of servant leadership). These are but some of the initiatives of alumni who have returned from their internships in Armenia, post-service. There are another 23 alumni who have repatriated to the homeland.

A close bond is developed between all alums in that when a situation arises to assist one in need, that challenge is met with fierce determination. Upon learning of the need for a stem cell transplant for the mother of volunteer, Olivia Katrandjian, she and fellow volunteers began a recruitment drive in Armenia and alumni have since continued assisting the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry with other recruitment drives and fundraising efforts during the past several months.

Some alumni expand upon their initial internships and continue their engagement of Armenia on a deeper, more personal level.

Because of her interest in environmental issues, Talene Boodaghians, a 2009 volunteer with AVC, was matched with BioSophia, a health and environmental protection NGO in Gumri. She worked with BioSophia’s ECO-club, but as a psychology student at the time, it seemed logical that she serve the organization’s public health initiative as well. Her two-month service culminated with a seminar on mental health care. Gumretsi psychology students, professors, practicing professionals and other interested locals attended the seminar and as a result, her research interests were solidified at BioSophia amongst some of the most intelligent, inquisitive colleagues and friends. As a Fulbright scholar, Boodaghians is currently working on a digital ethnography project, preserving Gumri’s historical narratives and personal stories through film.

Juan Bautista Karagueuzian from Argentina decided to keep a journal of his internship and sent articles back to his local newspaper which published them weekly. The interest was so strong that he compiled them into a book. Desde un guiso (“From a Stew”) not only includes the articles but additional reflections on his experiences as a volunteer. The book is presently available only in Spanish but Juan has received requests to translate it into other languages.

In the initial piece of this series, founder Edele Hovnanian said she hoped to see a strong group of compassionate leaders emerging within a decade as a result of their service in the homeland. In reality, Hovnanian’s “hope” is emerging now. G. Thomas Gale, a medical volunteer during the Spanish-American War, once said that “A pessimist sees a glass of water as being half empty while an optimist sees the same glass as half full. But a giving person sees a glass of water and starts looking for someone who might be thirsty.” Birthright Armenia’s alumni are not only giving but continue looking for any opportunity to build upon connections and bridges between Armenia and the diaspora.

(For further information on Birthright Armenia, the Alumni Committee or volunteering in the homeland, visit www.birthrightarmenia.org and www.armenianvolunteer.org.)