Back to the Founders

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By Gasia Oknayan
AYF Detroit “Kopernik Tandourjian” Chapter

As the 69th anniversary of Camp Haiastan inches upon us, it is imperative for today’s staff and camp community to look back upon the roots of the jampar we adore. This summer, I am blessed with the opportunity to spend my time at Camp Haiastan among my friends, coming together to perpetuate the same cause of our predecessors since camp was built nearly seven decades ago. I recently participated in a presentation by Baron Harry Kushigian and Unger Peter Alemian, who were accompanied by Baron Pete Jelalian and camp board chairperson Michael Guzelian. They spoke to our 2019 summer staff on their experiences at Camp Haiastan and how their experience translates into advice for the summer upon us. 

Baron Harry is a legend. He began by screening through the list of staff names, stopping at familiar surnames to make connections with grandparents, families and communities. While this may seem minuscule, this mere gesture emphasized the massive connections that are created throughout the history of AYF and Camp Haiastan. After making countless connections and creating lots of beaming smiles, Baron Harry proceeded to recall the origins of Camp Haiastan and its roots in the AYF.

In July 1940, AYF members in search of a campsite for Armenian youth visited our soon-to-be camp in Franklin, Massachusetts, which was ultimately purchased on August 12, 1940. With that undeveloped land, the AYF members built Camp Haiastan from the ground up over the next nearly two decades until Camp’s opening day in 1957. When WWII began, operations halted as AYF members left to serve in the Armed Forces. Camp construction resumed in 1946 after the end of WWII in 1945. AYF members would volunteer in their free time to cultivate the base of camp today.

As Baron Harry continued to reminisce on his time spent here, I couldn’t help but think about how the physicality of Camp Haiastan has changed so immensely in its past seven decades of existence, but the meaning of it and nature of people’s love for camp has not changed at all. The same feeling I see take over Baron Harry when he speaks of Camp Haiastan is the same rush of emotions that I feel when I talk about the times I’ve had here. As Baron Harry said, the common denominator of this camp over the past nearly 70 years is the hokee; the spirit of this place never changes and continues to enrich the lives of Armenian youth. In his closing remarks, he included a piece of advice for our staff. He told us to be careful with the campers. Being their caretakers is an immense responsibility, and it is upon us to do the best we can to prioritize their safety while also cultivating the children’s Armenian identity, which transcends into fueling our community. 

Following Baron Harry’s wise words, Unger Peter Alemian, another former Camp Haiastan staff member and camper, spoke to us about his experiences, emphasizing the value of the people at Camp Haiastan. He preached to us that the valuable pieces of Camp Haiastan are those intangibles that surpass what meets the eye; the epicenter and value of camp is held in the people who have spent their summers in adolescence and childhood running and playing on these magical grounds. Building upon this, Baron Peter emphasized our importance as counselors and how we need to utilize this great responsibility to encourage our campers in the right way, being positive role models. Recalling on his own camp experience, Baron Peter highlighted the way in which Camp Haiastan can facilitate a more enriched experience as an Armenian-American. Coming to Camp Haiastan has the ability to open a window for children into the rich, beautiful world that we hold as Armenians. 

We, as camp counselors, have the power to magnify the Armenian identity in the people that make up its future, the children; our responsibility, as expressed by both Baron Harry and Unger Peter, is to do our best here to strengthen the positive role models in the community and encourage our campers to be their best in the Armenian community and outside of it. Camp Haiastan holds an undeniably magical essence that changes lives, mine included. As staff members, it is our duty to hold that spirit and ensure that it ameliorates the lives of these young people. Camp Haiastan may seem like a small, mellow summer camp along a quaint pond; but, Camp Haiastan has the potential to have an indescribable impact on the lives of Armenian youth. Yesterday, Camp Haiastan changed lives. Today, Camp Haiastan changes my life. Tomorrow, Camp Haiastan will enrich the lives of those who do not yet know what they are missing.

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Founded in 1933, The Armenian Youth Federation is an international, non-profit, youth organization of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). The AYF-YOARF Eastern United States stands on five pillars that guide its central activities and initiatives: Educational, Hai Tahd, Social, Athletic and Cultural. The AYF also promotes a fraternal attitude of respect for ideas and individuals amongst its membership. Unity and cooperation are essential traits that allow members of the organization to work together to realize the AYF’s objectives.
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