Armenian Volunteer Corps

Welcome to the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) blog. Here our volunteers and alumni reflect on their experiences living and volunteering in Armenia. For more information about our programs, visit our website, follow us on Facebook or drop us an email: .

Thursday, September 10, 2009

From Unemployed in New York to Fully Employed in Gyumri

Marin Preske

Like so many other Americans, I lost my job early on in 2009. I had been on the editorial staff of a magazine in New York City and when its publisher decided to close several titles due to the economic crisis, I joined the ranks of the newly unemployed. Freelance projects kept me busy for a few months – after nearly 10 years in the industry, I had enough connections to keep me afloat. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that my current circumstance was chance for new and different opportunities. The prospect of landing a position at another magazine left me feeling unsatisfied, and while I didn’t know exactly what to do, I knew major change was in order. I tend to turn to travel in times of introspection, and so I started researching online. I looked into UN projects in Southeast Asia. Considered joining the Peace Corps. But nothing clicked. Then I heard about AVC.

During the application process, I opted to reside outside of Yerevan (after Manhattan, I needed a break from big cities and knew a different Armenia existed beyond the capital) and so agreed to live and work in Gyumri. With a background in media and photography, my professional experience consisted of conceiving and writing editorial, directing and producing shoots, heading visual art competitions, curating shows. I couldn’t imagine how AVC might parlay all of that into a job placement that could match my skills and interests (and wanted me). But I vowed to remain open-minded and explained that I’d be receptive to anything from the visual arts to humanitarian work. And somehow they found my perfect match.

I ended up at Caritas, a global NGO whose Armenian branch is headquartered in Gyumri. During my time there, I focused on two main projects that couldn’t have been more different – the ideal balance. First off, I worked on an EU-funded community development project aimed at 15 villages in some of the poorest areas of the country. Through business training (that includes access to a revolving grant) and local community action, the program seeks to improve social and economic conditions in the targeted areas. With the aim of empowering communities to become self-reliant, the program demonstrates that an individual has the ability to improve his or her own life. Not only was it rewarding to watch various communities band together and draft business plans (with little resources), but it also provided insight into the lingering post-Soviet mentality that plagues much of the country. My role consisted of working on the project manual – a tool kit that might serve as a guide for the project. Based out of the Caritas office, my colleagues and I traveled to nearby villages to see work in effect and made a special visit to Georgia since their Caritas branch successfully implemented a similar project the year before.

My second order of business was hosting photography workshops. As part of the United Nations’ 2010 End of Poverty goals, Caritas is in preparation for a round of events next year, which will include a visual arts exhibit on how youth sees poverty. I created and conducted two-day workshops for local Armenians aged 16-25. Each day we viewed photographs, discussed tips and techniques and went out into their everyday environment to shoot with fresh perspectives. I worked with participants one-on-one to offer feedback and highlight individual styles. It was gratifying to watch a bunch of teenagers walk in the first day more interested in text messaging, and leave asking me for my email address so they could continue to send me photographs after I had left. I even ended up conducting workshops for the Caritas staff itself, nearly logging 60 hours one workweek due to the turnout and enthusiasm.

I’ve returned from Armenia and still am unsure of exactly where my future lies. But looking back at my time in Gyurmi, I feel I gained as much as I gave. And the experience has opened my eyes to a whole new set of possibilities.

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