FRANKLIN, Mass.—Alarm clocks were ringing early Saturday morning for more than a dozen dedicated volunteers tasked with sprucing up the first Armenian camp in America.
“When I see the camp all clean, I never think about who did it,” said Camp Haiastan camper and 14 year-old volunteer Sevan Soukiasian. “But now it’s me doing it. So I feel like I earned camp more.”
Soukiasian, who will be attending camp for the fourth year this summer, joined her older brother Garen, cousin Alexis Cormier and other current and former campers and counselors over the weekend to clean up the sprawling Franklin campground ahead of the first overnight session on June 23.
Founded in 1951, Camp Haiastan has been the reason for the simple summertime memories for thousands of young Armenians, including those growing up in the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF). Generations of Diasporan Armenians have attended the overnight camp, which offers a variety of activities including Armenian classes, arts and crafts, swimming, competitive outdoor sports, a ropes course and boating on the campground’s 25-acre Uncas Pond. If you ask anybody, they’ll tell you—it’s tradition.
“We have to come to Camp Haiastan and help,” said June Mangassarian while joyfully sweeping the dining hall. “This is where I met my husband [John], and we’re still here—almost 40 years.”
That narrative is pretty common at Camp Haiastan. George Aghjayan’s parents met on the campgrounds as well. In fact, the chair of the Eastern Region Central Committee tells the Weekly that his mother Shooshie Der Manouelian was part of the first group of campers back when it opened in 1951. Back then, it was a two-week program: one week for boys, the other week for girls. “The camp means a lot to me. In fact, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the camp,” said Aghjayan. “It’s a special place.”
On Saturday, volunteer crews on the 100 acre property were not only sweeping, but they were organizing kitchen supplies, shoveling mounds of pebbles and rocks off the basketball court, repairing cabin decks, raking, clearing gutters and installing new cabin circle bricks around the statue of Armenian patriot and General Karekin Nejdeh.
“Luckily, if you come to camp cleanup,” began Chicago native Knar Bedian as she led the Weekly to the location of her inscribed brick, “sometimes you can decide where the bricks go. So I told Unger John [Miller] I wanted my brick near my dad’s.” Bedian, who returned for another summer as camp counselor after her brick had already been inscribed in 2012, told the Weekly she needs to update it to read, “Because I couldn’t say goodbye.”
The workday was nostalgic for all the volunteers. “Camp was a place where I could be myself from the very beginning,” recalled New Jersey’s Adam Boyajian, also known as “Peanut.” “I felt like it was a home away from home and a place where I could make friends that would truly last for a very long time.”
The beloved tradition that is Camp Haiastan is set to continue for its 68th year with the opening of a new laundry facility and an arts and crafts building this summer.