As we experience what life offers us, many come to the realization that true joy is found in the service of others. We all have gifts that have been granted to us by God, and over time and adversity, these gifts mature into skills that offer each of us the opportunity to give. Discovering these talents is part of our identity exploration. In our Armenian life, we are fortunate in this generation to have an independent homeland that can be a part of that discovery. There are a growing number of opportunities for our young Armenians in the diaspora to contribute to the prosperity of the homeland and at the same time exploring their personal identity. These programs vary in purpose from religious, cultural, educational, athletic to social. A majority of the programs are focused on the student population (high school/college) or young professionals. They all share a common theme of service and volunteerism. In an effort to advocate for and encourage our younger generation to participate in these incredible programs, I would like to share my personal experiences with one in particular.
In 2018, our extended family (with our cousins in Chicago), through the good fortune of supporting the Armenia Tree Project (ATP), began a friendship with the village of Paruyr Sevak. Located in the arid climate of southern Armenia (situated south and a bit east of Yerevan on the Nakhichevan border), it is what we call a rural border village. What we found was a community of wonderful people whose warmth enabled our relationship. We began a life-changing journey.
Our first project with the village was the installation of a computer lab for the secondary school. Through the generosity of our families and friends, the facility was completed in three months in the fall of 2018. As our love for the community grew and new projects were defined, it became apparent that we needed a partner experienced in infrastructure projects in the rural villages of Armenia and Artsakh. Over the winter and into early 2019, we began our search for a group that would serve the people of Paruyr Sevak. After a short period of reading and inquiries, we came across a US-based nonprofit out of California called the Paros Foundation. They were founded in 2006 by the Strauch Kulhanjian family in the Bay Area with venture capitalist Roger Strauch. The executive director of the foundation is Peter Abajian, a Detroit native and a tireless patriot devoted to bettering life in rural Armenia and Artsakh. What we found particularly attractive about the Paros Foundation was their experience, their business model and their commitment. They have implemented hundreds of projects in the last 16 years in Artsakh, Gyumri and the rural border areas of Armenia. They’ve built schools, cultural facilities, housing and other infrastructure in villages. They will take on just about any challenge, but their focus is on education, culture and economics. From a benefactor perspective, the overhead of the foundation is underwritten by the founder family which allows 100 percent of every donation to be applied directly to the project. In addition, benefactors can select a specific project or establish one (as we did) with Paros. It is by far the most credible donating experience one could expect from a philanthropic perspective. We have been working with Paros for over three years, and the village has seen remarkable infrastructure improvement in their schools and facilities. I can honestly say that everything that was “advertised” has been the reality of our experience. Peter operates out of LA but is in Armenia several times a year for extended periods to oversee projects with the Paros team in Armenia, define more opportunities and raise funds. Paros has a purchasing power for construction materials that is unparalleled and optimizes every dollar donated. As a result, the cost of projects is optimized and of high quality. They do their utmost to hire local labor, as we experienced in our projects which offers an additional benefit to the local community.
One significant advantage of working with Paros is the network of resources that the villages benefit from continuously. For example, during our primary school renovation project, Paros connected us with the remarkable “Focus On Children Now” non-profit that donated classroom furniture and playground equipment. Partnering with these types of resources is essential in maximizing impact for these villages. We have also learned a great deal from Paros about how to get things done in a dignified manner. Our intent is always to implement projects that the village wants and needs. Our partners at Paros have helped us with this process, and the result has been impressive with trusted relationships with the local citizens.
During the course of our time together, we have become aware of the Service Armenia summer program that Paros started a few years ago. It is an opportunity for high school and university students to experience Armenia and contribute through service projects. The intent is to assist our youth in their identity exploration while developing a value in service to others. It is a balance of touring, discovery, interning and meeting peers. The testimonies of participants have attested to the life-changing nature of the experience. As a result of its relationship with Paros, the Paruyr Sevak village has been on the Service Armenia schedule for the past two summers. They have conducted medical screenings in the local community and service projects in the schools. A few years ago, there was little support for this small community on the southern border. Today, the number of contributors continues to expand. Last year, the Service Armenia program added a “Young Professional” program that is focused on individuals approximately 24-40 years old. It provides an extension for those who may have participated in the 17-22 program in the summer months and encourages others to serve. This program is intended to offer Diasporans the opportunity to utilize their skills and profession in service to Armenia and Artsakh while experiencing the homeland in the company of their peers. The value of the program lies in meeting the identity and development needs of the Young Professionals while exploring and engaging in Armenia. This year’s program will take place in Armenia from October 14 to 30, and with gratitude we have learned that Paruyr Sevak is again on their schedule. They will travel all over Armenia during that window to learn, experience and serve others. The friendships and memories experienced by these individuals will fuel a lifetime of identity with each other and their heritage. During their visit to Paruyr Sevak, additional medical screenings will take place along with several service projects that have been identified. In many instances, the professional skills of the participants are applied in their work.
The program is designed to have an impact on the identity challenges of diaspora youth and the development needs of Armenia and Artsakh through a service-oriented experience. The Young Professionals program is the fulfillment of meaningful work, experiencing the beauty of Armenia and important peer socialization. As Abajian stated, “Service Armenia Young Professionals program is a natural extension of the younger age group program. The value lies in creating opportunities for these talented young diaspora Armenians to continue their personal development in an Armenian environment where the homeland is a beneficiary and their identity continues to blossom.” Peter is another leader in the gratifying long list of dedicated diaspora Armenians who view their role as much more than a job. Since 2006, Abajian has led Paros in completing hundreds of projects that have raised over $12 million. Our experience would define the relationship between benefactors, villages and Paros as a true partnership where improving the quality of life in border villages is the main objective. Peter is relentless in his commitment and skilled in the collaborative process of bringing these critical resources together. The Service Armenia program is a natural element in the Paros vision of bridging the diaspora and the homeland through betterment projects. I am in awe of individuals like Peter, who represent the best of the diaspora to Armenia and illustrate the sustained passion to attract others from the diaspora to the mission. We should never underestimate the value of such individuals who are humble and fiercely committed to the mission of improving the lives of our brethren in these border villages. There are thankfully many others such as the ACAA Artsakh Fund, Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) and the Tufenkian Foundation, to name a few.
The common thread is understanding and acting to improve the educational and economic conditions in the rural communities, particularly the border regions with hostile neighbors. These brave brethren of ours seek nothing more than a peaceful life, a reasonable standard of living and opportunities for their children. In return, they populate strategically important regions of the Armenian homeland. In their absence, these areas would be less populated, perhaps below communal critical mass, thus further endangering the security of our fragile homeland. Working with organizations like the Paros Foundation and others is both a privilege and a responsibility. We encourage professionals in that demographic group to strongly consider this life-changing opportunity.