Cynthia Reimers Erickson: Building Homes in Armenia with the Fuller Center

Destiny continues to point in the right direction where this columnist is concerned. I have to believe it “was written”—jagadakir—that when I was a guest at the June 2010 Vasbouragan (Vanetsi) Convention’s Friday evening social I would have a brief but eye-opening encounter with a fascinating woman whose story would be of great interest to readers.

Cynthia Reimers Erickson

Cynthia Reimers Erickson possesses the quiet type of celebrity. She represents the quiet heroes, the non-self promoters who do not seek publicity, leaving that for others to discover.

The evening was ending rather uneventfully when someone insisted I meet a convention delegate from Minnesota named Cynthia Reimers Erickson, past president of the Armenian Cultural Organization of Minnesota (ACOM). I was familiar with that organization and immediately knew I had found someone with a connection to my good friend Helen Pompeian from Rochester, Minn.

After introductions, I asked if she knew ACOM member Pompeian and she replied in the affirmative. The ice was quickly broken; we had common ground but Cynthia was being rushed off to another event. She hastily handed me her business card, which I quickly scanned—causing me to raise my eyebrows and my curiosity. It didn’t take long to conclude I was dealing with an exceptional woman.

The card stated that Cynthia was “a volunteer team leader with the Fuller Center in Armenia,” building interest-free homes for the poor.

Who was this heroic person who did not look traditionally Armenian? And what is it that she does in Armenia? Emails soon answered all my questions.

Cynthia grew up on a farm near Wimbledon, N.D. with her Armenian mother Viola Satenig (Abrahamian) and German father Lawrence Reimers, both American born, and her four siblings.

Now, how many Armenians do you know who live in North Dakota? Providence, Boston, Glendale, and Detroit perhaps—cities deemed to be the center of the U.S. diasporan universe, but North Dakota? Not even close.

Her Armenian grandmother Khashkhatoun Bargamian, a genocide survivor from Palu, lived in nearby Jamestown, N.D. Her Vanetsi grandfather Melkon Abrahamian had moved here by the time of the genocide. Her grandparents married in Cuba in 1924 but Melkon died before Cynthia’s birth.

She fondly recalls visits to her grandmother, who “cooked without measuring ingredients and taught me how to crochet and knit.” She describes her as “a kind, sweet, gentle person, but we never learned to speak Armenian. I think grandma was the one who made me want to visit Armenia one day.” It was a foretelling of Cynthia’s future.

Cynthia recalls visits by Detroiter Zarry Sarkisian’s sisters-in-law Jean and Margaret when she was only two, and she and brother Dale joining in the dances (which they enjoyed so much). This introduction to Armenian dance for the young North Dakotan was a future indicator of what would become an endeavor of major accomplishment.

Her first taste of traveling came in the 70’s when she was a college junior. She backpacked for a month in Europe and “absolutely loved it.”

While finishing college at University of North Dakota, Cynthia moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul to complete an internship at the Hennepin County Medical Center as a medical technologist. She attended Armenian events with her aunt Sue Kerner, including an 80’s visit by Archbishop Torkom Manoogian.

The Armenian Cultural Organization of Minnesota brought lecturers and performers, and offered Armenian-language classes. Armenian visitors were no strangers to the Twin Cities; some were author Peter Balakian, Ara Sarafian from Great Britain, Prof. Vahakn Dadrian, and singer Charles Aznavour.

The cultural organization also had an Armenian folk dance group which Cynthia joined.

After spending over 30 years in ACOM, she pulled away to spend more time with her children, work, and Armenian dancing. That folk dance group eventually became the Armenian Dance Ensemble of Minnesota and performs annually at the Festival of Nations in St. Paul and at other events.

She says, “I am fascinated with the various experiences of the people of our community, what escape routes they took to arrive here. They are a wealth of history and information and culture. Being Armenian is unique and I like being unique.”

In 1985, Cynthia traveled to Soviet Armenia with her parents and aunt Cathy Igielski to meet cousins in Yerevan. She says that is where she learned the stories of Hodja, the 13th-century Turkish personage who wrote quick-witted anecdotes of advice and wisdom.

Cynthia herself is amazed at how Armenian activities grew in Minnesota through the Dance Ensemble and the ACOM-sponsored St. Sahag mission parish, into which she got her three sons involved.

In 2002, Cynthia met Kristi Rendahl, who had just returned from spending five years in Armenia with the Peace Corp, then worked to start Habitat for Humanity, leaving that to develop Made In Armenia Direct to support Armenian artisans. Kristi’s interesting story has been told recently in the Weekly.

Cynthia joined Kristi on her first return trip to Armenia since she was instrumental in launching the program to help get Armenians into houses.

“Kristi Rendahl is the reason I became involved first with Habitat for Humanity in Armenia and then with the Fuller Center for Housing,” says Cynthia. “She was the team leader of the first home building mission trip that I took to Armenian in 2003.”

“At the time I thought it was the greatest opportunity for me to return to Armenia 18 years after my first visit—to go with the American responsible for launching Habitat in Armenia.” Like Kristi, Cynthia Reimers Erickson found Habitat’s changes not to her liking. “I loved the work, loved my teammates, and loved the people of Armenia, but not the hot August weather.”

After leading teams for Habitat for several years, Cynthia says, “I finally found my mission in life.” Issues arose and she joined a newer organization founded by Millard Fuller: the Fuller Center for Housing. “I was able to continue to serve the lower income working poor in Armenia by providing them interest-free loans to build a decent home.”

Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity in 1976 but parted ways with them in 2005, and founded the Fuller Center for Housing. When the Armenian covenant partner joined them in 2008, they were the first international partner to have teams recruited specifically to build in Armenia. So the team in Armenia helped the Fuller Center launch and grow the method of recruiting volunteers.

Cynthia led teams with the Fuller Center in 2008 and 2009. In 2008, seven of the team members were from her family: her mother, sister, aunt and uncle, one nephew, and herself.

Rather than slinging buckets of concrete, she made her mother Viola “ambassador,” and she also helped the host families prepare meals and socialized with them, building bonds of culture between our two countries.

Cynthia plans on leading a team again in 2011 and is making preparations to do so in May or June. She says that like in previous years, her teams are open to all people interested in volunteering in Armenia and traveling the back roads, not just the tourist sites.

“It’s a way to make a difference in the lives of hard-working, poor Armenians, to help them obtain a decent, healthy home for their families so that the fabric of Armenian society is strengthened.”

You can learn so much from others if you open yourself up to new friendships. The opportunity for me thankfully arose at the Vasbouragan social evening.

The half-Armenian girl who grew up on a farm in North Dakota has paid more respect to her grandmother and grandfather’s memory than one can imagine.

Cynthia Reimers Erickson, we salute you for your amazing contributions to humanity and to Armenia. Your story should stand as an inspiration to others who question how they can truly contribute to the growth and stabilization of Armenia.

Character is defined by noble work accomplished by noble people. Cynthia Reimers Erickson stands as a firm example of just that.

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Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty (Serpouhie) Apigian Kessel was born in Pontiac, Mich. Together with her husband, Robert Kessel, she was the proprietor of Woodward Market in Pontiac and has two sons, Bradley and Brant Kessel. She belonged to the St. Sarkis Ladies Guild for 12 years, serving as secretary for many of those years. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the Detroit community selected her to be the English-language secretary and she happily dedicated her efforts to help the earthquake victims. She has a column in the Armenian Weekly entitled “Michigan High Beat.”

6 Comments

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the article about my daughter, Cynthia Erickson.  She has been involved with our Armenian culture these many years and has been a promoter within our family to keep awareness of  their heritage alive. 
    I would like to know if your could notify me of any followoup comments, if that is possible. 
    Thank you.   

  2. Anna – It is a complete pleasure for me to do this type of work. I absolutely love it, and I cherish the look on the faces of the families that are working towards owning their own decent home. I hope that others will read my story and consider what they can do to support folks in Armenia. There are many options. I have found my mission in building homes.
    Vi – Mom – Hey, after all, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have visited Armenia that first time in 1985. That planted seeds for a return later in my life. So you are at least partly responsible for me getting into this adventure! And I appreciate that immensely.

  3. Cynthia,
    My address book took a vacation and it included losing your email address.  Please contact me as I would like to route my Xmas donation to Fuller through your effort.
    Pamela

  4. I would like to know the story of how the Armenians settled in North Dakota. From what I heard they came to build the railroad from Minneapolis to the West Coast. So, they settled in little towns on the prairie along the way to the West Coast. They preserved their language and culture in these little towns on the prairie, and they were able to face the brutal North Dakota climate, plauged by blizzards, temperatures way below zero, and blistering hot summers. Also, I would like to know how they related to the Native American peoples in the area, the Dakota. Did they recognize the distinct language and culture of the Dakotas, as fully as their own?

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