More than a gym

I wrote this article when I returned from Armenia this past summer. In light of the Artsakh tragedy, I initially chose not to submit it for publication. As the days dragged on and all our attention remained on Artsakh and its humanitarian crisis, our story and our thanks to those who volunteered with us did not seem that important. Our plans to visit Armenia next July with Fuller Global Builders to build homes for the needy and to help a village school seemed small and distant.

Thinking long and hard about our future work in Armenia, I guess we have a choice. Building a home for one needy family and helping one village school may not garner the same level of support of family, friends and community as it did in the past. Yet I refuse to be paralyzed by current events. We will forge ahead knowing that our efforts will make a difference, be they small in the scheme of things. The sooner Armenia’s children return to a sense of normalcy, the better. As of this writing, the Nor Ughi School has accepted 11 refugee children from Artsakh.

Please know that this article was written at the time as a feel-good story. Hopefully, you will still find it so. For those who feel paralyzed by the events of the past month, please continue to support our brothers and sisters and march forward without hesitation. Together, let’s make tomorrow a better day.

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While visiting Armenia in 2022, my wife June and I, along with a Fuller Global Builders team, helped build a home for the Ghazaryan family in the village of Nor Ughi/Ginevet in the Ararat province. The family of six had been living in a domik (metal container) for over 27 years. We returned to Armenia this year and visited their finished home. Their new home is respectable – I take that back, it is spectacular! It was transformational for this family and even more transformational for us. 

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In 2022, we also visited the village’s middle school. Vartouhi, mother of the Ghazaryan household, worked as its custodian and arranged to take us to the school for a tour. The school was very modest, gray, sterile and in need of repair, as many schools are in rural Armenia. The floor needed repairs, the library was empty of books, the sewing room only had one sewing machine, and the list goes on. While visiting the gymnasium, I took the occasion to clown around with the children exercising.  

It was amazing to see the students so happy and engaged and a staff that worked hard despite the school’s condition of disrepair. It was impossible to walk away without wanting to do something to help them.

The principal Qristine Tunyan was very impressive. She shared some of her vision for the students and the school. This is when I asked the dumbest question of all time: “What do you need?” They need so much. Where do you start?

Returning home in July 2022, we knew we wanted to help. What would have an impact? What is within our means? Is it even doable to do something for them, sitting here in the United States? When I was sent a photo that captured my time exercising with the students, I found the answer, right there in the picture. You could see the gym’s disrepair – broken plaster, deteriorated floor, a backboard from the 50s. The idea to repair the gymnasium was born. 

John Mangassarian exercising with the school children in 2022

In September 2022, I ran into my old friend Stepan Piligian at the AYF Olympics in Worcester. Discussing our recent trips to Armenia, he suggested that if I wanted to renovate or build something in Armenia, I should contact the Paros Foundation. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I contacted Peter Abajian at Paros, and he immediately dispatched people to visit the school and determine if the project was feasible. The first step was to make sure the school is seismically stable and not planned for demolition. After receiving notice that the school will be around for a while, the Paros people put together a proposal.

In early February 2023, we began fundraising. My wife and I pledged to match all donations and were shocked by the response. By early May, we had collected all the money we needed to complete the project. It became clear that this was not just a gymnasium renovation. It had become so much more to so many people.

Principal Tunyan would post pictures and messages on Facebook as construction progressed. All the school needed was a spark to ignite their flame. The school spirit soared. In one post, they credited us for a donation they received from Russia to renovate a classroom. We had nothing to do with that good fortune. It was just another piece of the momentum we were part of. 

The gymnasium project brought out the generosity of so many, including from people who had never been to Armenia or may never visit. The gymnasium was their way of being part of our journey. Many Camp Haiastan alumni, past volunteers from Fuller trips, family, friends and members of the Providence  community contributed. These people, these heroes, yearned to help our countrymen and just needed the right avenue. They are people who know that these children, our children, deserve better. 

Although unspoken, I feel that this was also important for the Paros Foundation. It was another feather in their cap, a project completed for the betterment of Armenia. It added further credibility to their mission. I will go out on a limb and say it was a boost to the morale of their employees, both here and overseas, who were involved from the beginning and throughout the project.

On the most personal level, everyone’s interest and generosity conveyed to my wife Junie and me that they trusted us to bring the message of their support to these people. It was easy for us to forge ahead knowing that we had this army behind us.

Newly renovated gymnasium during opening ceremony

The gym was completed in late June, just before our arrival in Armenia to help build a home for another family. The Paros Foundation and the school planned a ribbon cutting ceremony at the gym on July 12. Knowing that we would be in the village that day with our Fuller group, I had contacted Jeanmarie Papelian of the Armenia Tree Project (ATP). Each year, my wife and I go to the ATP nursery in Karin to plant five trees. I asked Papelian if it would be possible to plant the trees at the school instead this year. The school has nothing in the way of landscaping. Papelian not only agreed, but she added that ATP would bring 20 trees. She also pledged that ATP would return in the fall to give every family in that village fruit trees. I was floored by the generosity, and all Papelian could say was, “That’s what we do,” a perfectly humble response. 

On the day of the ribbon cutting ceremony, our Fuller group arrived early to plant the trees along with Navasard, Satenig and other ATP personnel. I was surprised to learn that our 20 trees would be the first trees planted in a proposed children’s park on the school grounds. 

After the tree planting, a short ceremony took place at the school. Before the program, Junie and I were asked to cut the ribbon to officially open the new gymnasium. We also hung a plaque in the foyer leading to the gymnasium that listed all the donors. These donors officially became part of the Nor Ughi school family.       

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The ceremony was like a mini hantes. The students sang, danced and performed. We purchased some of the students’ handicrafts that were on display. We spoke to the parents and teachers and played with the children in the new gymnasium. School was not in session for the summer, but the community came out in full force. The importance of this project was amplified by the local government and education department officials in attendance.                              

After the children performed, there were some speeches, and I was asked to say a few words. I thanked the school and villagers for allowing us to be part of their family for the day. I explained that there are many people many miles away who think about them, care about them, are proud of them and cheer them on every day. I pledged to the teachers and students that Junie and I would start working on a plan for a new soccer field on the school grounds. Hopefully we can complete the project by the time we return next year with another Fuller Group of volunteers. 

With the principal’s vision for her school and our willingness to support her efforts, together we will continue to cultivate this new relationship. We agreed to explore the possibility of a “Sister School” program. Upon our return home, we received a commitment from Sts. Vartanantz Mourad Armenian Saturday School in Providence, Rhode Island to partner with the Nor Ughi School as a “Sister School.” We will develop this collaboration over the next few months with the hopes that it will be a program that will long endure.

The gymnasium renovation brought so many individuals and organizations together to contribute to this school’s success. The Nor Ughi School, the Paros Foundation, the Armenia Tree Project, Fuller Global Builders, Sts. Vartanantz Mourad Armenian Saturday School and donors throughout the Armenian diaspora all played a part. I am sometimes critical of Armenia, the land of 26 political parties, hundreds of organizations that overlap and churches that compete rather than join hands. The gymnasium project proves how strong we can be when we all stand, work and fight together.

John Mangassarian

John Mangassarian

John Mangassarian is a former camper, counselor, board member and lifelong supporter of Camp Haiastan.
John Mangassarian

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  1. John and Junie.
    A walk of 1000 miles starts with the first step. What an amazing transformation of that gymnasium inside and out. What looked like an improbable task, became a shining reality. But I’m not surprised at anything you both put your minds to accomplish. Job well done.

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