AYF Camp Haiastan: Spotlight on the Staff

FRANKLIN, Mass.—When discussing life at AYF Camp Haiastan, the focus is most often on the campers, the program and the facility. The staff is one group that is sometimes overlooked. They are the counselors, staff in training, lifeguards and Armenian school teachers. This year, the staff of 58 includes just three who have never attended Camp Haiastan. The average age of the dedicated group is 19 years old, and between them, they spent an average of five-and-a-half years as campers. This staff has vast institutional knowledge, not only of the activities but also of the facilities.

Their day begins early and ends late. They have to be up before the campers. They get some rest when the campers are safely in their bunks and trying to sleep. But the night is not over. All staff members have committee duties. They have to plan for four sessions, each one a bit different than the others.

Before Staff Training Week (STW), the staff members select the programs that are of special interest to them. The committees that are organized during STW are Dance, Newspaper, Photo and Video, Olympics, Night Activities, Rainy Day Activities and Vartavar. 

Narine Mahserjian and Sophia Marangoudakis

The Photo/Video Committee is the only one that has an external function. They are responsible for photographing activities throughout the day. These photographs are then uploaded to a third-party website that all parents can access. In a two-week session, more than 2,100 photographs were posted so parents could see their campers enjoying the various activities. Sophia Marangoudakis and Narine Mahserjian are the two coordinators of this committee. While discussing this responsibility, they reflected on the past and the future. “I want the next generation to see these pictures and be able to understand the camp’s history. That is how I view old pictures of camp. I would like them to experience that same feeling,” said Mahserjian. Marangoudakis added, “Our responsibility is not only to give parents a glimpse of camp life but to add to the camp’s historical record.”

The Night Activity Committee was probably established the first year the camp opened. Night activity is one of the few times when all the campers, regardless of age group, participate together in the same activity. Anyone who has attended camp over the past few decades will immediately recognize these. The Alphabet Game: Questions are given, and the team has to spell the one answer. Song Night: Cabins learn a patriotic Armenian song and each cabin takes turns singing it. The cabin has to recite the English translation and provide the historical context. Lip-sync: This is probably one of the campers’ favorites. The karaoke-style performance is presented with a lot of choreography, as well as coordinated clothing. A few decades ago, when the Detective Game was introduced as a camp activity, postcards strategically placed throughout the facility provided clues. Today, videos are used, but the concept remains the same.

Newspaper Committee prepares the end-of-session camp “newspaper.” Gone are the days of photocopying, or even mimeographing, pages and distributing them. This is an e-paper that is sent to the campers’ email addresses. The colorful 13-page newsletter is produced using the latest publishing software. It provides an opportunity for the campers to remember and reminisce for years to come. 

Vartavar Committee: Since Vartavar (Վարդավառ) is celebrated in the month of June, many years ago, the camp added this activity to the program. The tradition is explained to the campers, but they are not told which day of the session it will be observed. The committee ensures that there are plenty of buckets and other containers available, and they initiate the unexpected dumping of water. After that, everyone joins in the festivities. This year, in addition to the traditional celebration, a water slide and a foam machine were introduced to the delight of the campers.

Dance Committee: Each camp session has two dances, one on the Saturday of the first week and the second on the last night of the two-week session. The first dance always has a simple theme, and those campers who so desire will wear clothing or accessories that align with the theme, such as sport, neon and Christmas in July. The second dance features prominent Armenian musicians who offer their time and talents to entertain the campers. If there is one thing all the campers and staff enjoy, it is Armenian dances.

Olympics: The planning for the three-day Olympics extravaganza begins on the first Sunday night. Each team, named Red (Կարմիր), blue (Կապոյտ) or orange (Նարնջագոյն), is led by three coaches selected by the committee. The coaches have a “draft” session and select their team from the groups divided by gender and age. The Olympics are by far the most popular activity. Every camper has to participate in one team and one individual sport. The games end with a Quiz Bowl which reviews the topics taught in Armenian class during the two-week session.

Armenian school, lectures, swimming, recreational and instructional—all of these activities are part of AYF Camp Haiastan’s rich tradition that continues to thrive 73 years after it was established as a summer camp for young American Armenians.


Founder’s Day
By Alina Ouligian

Alina Ouligian

Every year, individuals visit the Camp Haiastan staff to present “Founder’s Day.” On Founder’s Day, past ungers, ungerouhis, Barons, Digins and longstanding members of the AYF Camp Haiastan community address the staff. This year, Michael Guzelian, Harry Kushigian, Dr. Louis Najarian, Baron Peter Jelalian and Mesrob Odian spoke to us about the importance of remembering the history of Camp Haiastan. They reminded us that thanks to the hardworking and dedicated individuals who hand-built our beautiful camp, over 2,100 campers worldwide have been able to enjoy it. 

The presenters shared photographs of the founders of Camp Haiastan driving tractors to clear land, women cooking shish kebab over a campfire and the first cabins being built. They told us about how individuals came from all over the country, driving to this newly-purchased land, to achieve their dream of creating a place for Armenians to preserve and pass down traditions and culture. As they showed us these photographs, we recognized some areas of the camp and appreciated that, despite all the renovations that have been made, there are still many aspects that remain the same. The joy and excitement on the faces of generations of campers, counselors and directors has been unwavering since the very beginning. 

Baron Harry Kushigian incorporated a very personal approach to help us understand the impact that we are leaving on camp. He spoke to us about our grandparents and family connections. He individually looked us in the eye and reminisced about our ancestors, who he personally knew, and the ways that we are following in their footsteps. I felt especially connected when he spoke to me about my grandpa John Ouligian, and my papa, Astor Guzelian. I know I speak for everyone when I say that this made me feel more connected to camp than I ever had. Hearing about my grandparents, who paved the way for me to be working at Camp Haiastan this year, made me feel as though I had a special duty to both the camp and my family who worked hard for Camp Haiastan and the AYF. This is the 73rd year since Camp Haiastan opened its gates, and with fourth-generation campers coming in, the dream of the founders only becomes brighter.

It is now up to us to, “Keep the tradition, but make it better than it was.”—Mal Varadian

Alina Ouligian is 18 years old and a sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder, majoring in communications. This is her 10th year at camp, and her second on staff. She lives in Needham, Massachusetts and is a member of the AYF Boston “Nejdeh” Chapter.


Creating Your Legacy at Camp Haiastan
By Sophia Tarpinian

Sophia Tarpinian

The summertime has always been when I have felt the most Armenian. Growing up, I have always spent my fall, spring and winter consumed by school, sports and all of the non-Armenian aspects of my life. I grew up attending AYF Junior Seminar every Memorial Day weekend, then attending Camp Haiastan for two weeks, completely immersing myself in not only the culture, but the community as well, and then concluding my summers with AYF Senior Olympics over Labor Day weekend. I loved the summertime because I would have more time to see my Armenian friends who did not live nearby. It was always the time when I felt most connected to our heritage.

  Now, as a 20-year-old college student, I spend my fall, spring and winters away from my family, my AYF chapter, church and the Armenian community in which I spent most of my life. This transition was strange at first because I felt detached from everything that I grew up with. All of my family and Armenian friends were physically farther away from me than ever before, and keeping in touch would become complicated when so far away. Yet there was always camp, not just in the physical sense but also the metaphorical and sentimental presence to bring us together.

Every spring, buzzing through all the different grapevines, there was always the question of who was planning their summer around working at camp that year. The excitement was in the air and you could feel it whenever you went to church, AYF meetings and even gatherings with family.  It made people that much more excited to begin the summer camping season!

After being a camper for 10 years, I knew that I would not want to spend a summer away from Camp Haiastan. I was hired as staff in training in 2020, which got moved online as “Camp Zoomastan” due to the pandemic. My first year working in person was in 2021, and it was truly an eye-opening experience. I learned so much about what goes on behind the scenes in order to make camp run successfully. I knew that I had to make that year amazing since the previous year was taken from me. I am so happy to have been able to not only witness all of the planning, care and passion that goes into preparing for the summer but to experience it firsthand as well. Being at camp gives me a new sense of energy that I would not trade for the world, and I hope that everyone can experience the joys and excitement that working at camp gave me that first year on staff. However, coming back for the second year is what made it feel really worthwhile.

Returning to a place you love and consider a second home is easy. In 2022, my second year working at camp, there were a lot of younger, newer staff who were excited to learn just like I was the year before. The second year working was different because I could feel the first-time staff often looking to me for guidance and advice. I could feel myself becoming a leader, and I loved every second of it. I always knew that I had it in me, but working at camp allowed the shy little girl inside of me to blossom. Working with the staff my second year was an amazing experience, but what made it even more special was the children. Having campers run up to me on drop-off day and give me a hug was one of the best feelings in the world. Knowing that I was able to provide campers with happy memories and have them be overjoyed to see old staff was such a rewarding feeling, especially since I had the opportunity to be one of them.

I am now returning for my thirteenth year at camp, my third on staff, as head counselor. Guiding this group of young individuals who are as passionate about camp and the Armenian youth as I am has made my job much more manageable. The people who work at camp truly do it because they love this place and everything that it has given them. Camp Haiastan has given me friendships that have been with me since I was seven years old and that I know will be with me until the very end. The memories last a lifetime, and seeing the next generation of youth walk in to have the same experiences makes it all worthwhile. 

Living in America, we can sometimes lose touch of our uniquely rich history, culture and community. It is very easy to fall through the cracks and slip into a simple American life – I have found myself doing it time and time again. As I have gotten older, I have forgotten the Armenian language, I do not listen to the music as much, and, at best, I have the reading and writing levels of a kindergartener. Since day one, Camp Haiastan has welcomed many generations of children with open arms to teach us all about the culture, customs and community that Armenians in the diaspora have to offer. I look forward to returning to Camp Haiastan every year with great anticipation, counting down the days. Serving as head counselor this year and seeing more from the administrative perspective for camp is awe-inspiring.

While attending Camp Haiastan as a camper was one of my most amazing experiences, working on staff is even better. The people you meet, the memories you make and the connections that you build last forever. Sending in my application to work my first year was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. Camp Haiastan has given me the opportunity to empower Armenian youth, connect with my peers, become more responsible and create my legacy within the community. I know there are campers and staff members with whom I have created relationships and memories for a lifetime. Camp Haiastan is the gift that keeps on giving – enjoy it while you still can!

Sophia Tarpinian is 20 years old and from Tenafly, New Jersey. She is a member of the AYF New Jersey “Arsen” Chapter. In the fall, she will be starting her senior year at the University of Maryland – College Park, concluding her studies in early childhood education/early childhood special education. This is her 13th year at Camp Haiastan; she was a camper for ten years, a counselor for two years, and is currently in her third year on staff as head counselor. 


Ode to Artsakh
By Emin Abrahamian

Emin Abrahamian

The 73rd season at AYF Camp Haiastan commenced on June 25 when over 120 Teen Session campers were welcomed to the historic campgrounds. This year’s theme for Hye Jham (Armenian Hour), a daily educational hour for all campers, focused on Artsakh. The purpose of this was to teach Armenian youth about the current state of the Artsakh conflict while providing the necessary background information as context. Topics covered the local cuisine, dialect, monuments and a synopsis of the Artsakh liberation movement. 

One of the final deliverables that campers fulfilled was to write short poems summarizing the liberation struggle and the current blockade that has cut off the 120,000 inhabitants of Artsakh from necessary resources such as food, electricity and gas. Following are a few of the poems written by campers sharing their sentiments and raw emotions surrounding Artsakh and its connection to the Armenian diaspora.

Emin Abrahamian is 21 years old and lives in Lexington, Massachusetts. He is a member of the AYF Boston “Nejdeh” Chapter and a student at Northeastern University in Boston. Emin worked both as the lead Armenian school teacher and male counselor. He has spent 11 years at camp: eight as a camper, three as staff.


Throughout hundreds of years our land has been taken,
the land has been destroyed, burnt, broken, and shaken.
No matter what happens we always shine through,
our soldiers fight back, our people stay true.
They come to our borders applying much force,
they turn their cold shoulder and show no remorse.
Artsakh is Armenia, it always has been,
all we can hope is that they pay for their sins.

By Talia, Ariana, Taleen, Vahan


I’m safe, I’m unbothered
but I feel it when I raise our flags.
I feel it when we sing our anthems.
Your pain goes miles, it travels far.
I sleep for you and eat for you
the nights I know you can’t.

I’ll hug and kiss my parents, I know I’m lucky that I can.
I miss your parents for you and I sleep in my warm bed.

I don’t forget the days you’ve fought,
the 200 days that the children have suffered.
I go to school and learn for them,
I promise I will fill your steps in this country that I’m safe in.
I see you everywhere I go,
your bravery is unforgotten.

So, I’ll stand up straight and proud, I’ll sing at every flagpole.
I’ll think about the blood and sweat the tears you must’ve sweat.
I promise that I’ll make you proud, I promise that I will sing loud.
I’ll make my life and live the fullest for my soldiers.
Իմ սիրտս, իմ զինուորներ։

By Maral, Briel, Lauren, Gregory, Sonya 


Արցախի ցաւը ու Հայաստանի մահը
Հայ զինուորը անդադար կռւում
Լեռները, վանքերը կորսւում
Երբ պիտի կենայ այս արիւնն ու վախը
Ուր է մեր անկախ Արցախը։

By Antrias, Van, Matthew, Louie 


Haig Shamlian

Haig Shamlian is 18 years old from Radnor, Pennsylvania. He is a member of the AYF Philadelphia “Sebouh” Chapter. In the fall, he will be attending Drexel University and majoring in computer science with a minor in game design. This is his 14th summer at AYF Camp Haiastan: three years at day camp, nine years at overnight camp and two years on staff. He can be seen sketching during his free time. Two of his sketches are featured here.

Guest Contributor

Guest Contributor

Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.

1 Comment

  1. Bravo campers and all of camphayastan staff! Raising consciousness Armenians and hayaserootyoon each year. So proud of this being part of our international community.

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