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: .

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Special Journey with Special Adults

Ashley Howard

The final image of David and I, flashes across my mind as a stop motion video. His voice shatter’s around me, the echo of falling laughter. I may never feel the warmth of his young wrinkled hands, or his chapped lips caressing my cheek as he would say goodbye. He whisper’s to me, almost silent, his shadow fallows me as I walk towards the plane. I am on my way “Home” relatively speaking. He surrounds me with all eleven of the adults that I spent the last three months working with at Warm Hearth. I am unsure of the fate of these beautiful residents. Their fate hangs in the closets of politicians. The symphony Natalie; the founder created through the office of each diplomat and political figure may ring through the streets of Yeravan, but it may not even awaken one man. The differences these individuals encompass is more of a gift and less of a disability. There is a light that shine’s from deep within them; it brought a smile to my heart every time I was in their presence. There is a saying that you must smile from your mind, mouth, heart and even your liver to achieve balance. They brought that balance into my life and for all their kindness I am forever grateful. The fate of our adjoined journey is wide open, the path is widening into a road as I start living my life outside of Armenia and my once youthful days. The time has come to start making those choices that lead to a destination. With warm hearth always in my heart; they are the smile to my liver. I will hopefully always work towards the life of this wonderful home!

I sit here in Peet’s tea and coffee in good old Boston reflecting on my three months in Yerevan, fondly re-watching the movie I created through the memory of my wonderful host family and the places I worked. The kindness bestowed upon me was selfless, full of love and I am forever grateful. I was constantly reminded of my beloved grandmother who is wrapped in the embrace of mother’s soil. The need to feed people with love is an identifier of Armenian people, especially the vintage. My host family was constantly trying to feed me, the folk I met on the bus or through work were doing the same. Whether I was invited into the home of a kind stranger or asked to eat with the women I worked with, it was always the same, kindness and hospitality.

One thing I can say for sure, is that Armenia will forever hold a special place in my heart. I may not visit there for years, but the memories and lessons I learned while there are etched in my mind, embedded on the film I used to create my story. If you choose to embark on this journey, you will forever be touched, changed and reborn!

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Philanthropy, not Charity

Rubina Shaldjian

I have been in Armenia for nearly three months. During my time here, I have been volunteering at the Civilitas Foundation. Many people think that Civilitas is a political organization. After all, it was founded by Vartan Oskanian, who was the Armenian Foreign Minister for 10 years. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Though Civilitas does try to impact policy in Armenia, it has no official political affiliation. The Civilitas Foundation supports a variety of projects ranging from strengthening civil society in Armenia to providing micro loans to fighting human rights violations. However, the question that always comes up is: what’s next?

To explain Civilitas, I would say that their goal is philanthropy and not charity. It’s something I observed over the past few weeks. Unfortunately, Armenia receives a lot of outside aid. Often, people here don’t think about the money well running dry. The great thing about Civilitas’ projects is that they are sustainable. They are not offering any handouts. Rather, they provide the tools for success.

As an example, Civilitas recently completed a project that renovated a number of libraries in rural Armenia. The goal was to take these cold, bare shell buildings and transform them to community centers. By changing the windows, adding insulation, adding heat, new bookshelves and books, these libraries are transformed to a place where people can gather, learn and share ideas. By adding a computer and an Internet connection, you open up an entire world to these folks. You remove their isolation!

The thing I like the most about these library-related projects is that it’s really up to the locals to use the books and educational tools we give them to better themselves. And this is exactly what has happened. In the short time since they were renovated, the libraries themselves have already organized a number of events, including cultural nights dedicated to Armenian writers, educational events for both adults and children, and book drives to help the libraries grow. It has been really amazing for me to watch the videos of the events held in these community libraries. They are packed full of people! I think with modern technology, many people living in developed countries have forgotten how important a community library can be.

Civilitas has also been soliciting other sponsors to help purchase books and materials. They have gotten corporate sponsors and also have a project called Angel Tree. Angel Tree is a book collection effort to keep filling the libraries. They are also collecting puzzles and educational games for the children’s sections of rural libraries throughout the country.

Overall, my experience at Civilitas has been incredible. The staff is made up of both Diasporans and locals, and many have studied at least a year abroad, so the perspectives are different and interesting. The people are bright and friendly. There’s a lot of laughter in the office, and we eat lunch together 3 days a week. I am also impressed by the amount of passion and creativity. It’s incredibly fast-paced, and in one day, the topics can range from A to Z. So it’s rarely boring, and the days just fly by. Best of all, at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve contributed something.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

From Australia to Armenia

Charis Tyrrel

Leaving Australia

It is June 2010 and over morning coffee in our home in Canberra, Australia my husband Anthony asks if I would like to relocate to Yerevan, Armenia? He had been offered a 6 month contract with UNDP and I rapidly think through the myriad of departure preparations but just as rapidly agree that this is an opportunity not to be missed and four weeks later we both arrive suitcases in hand in Yerevan and embrace the warm welcoming summer weather.

Looking for volunteer position in Yerevan

I have worked all my life and knew that I wanted to be gainfully occupied and to contribute in some productive way during my time in Armenia.

Firstly I knew that if I was going to volunteer my time and energy to an organisation or project there were several important criteria that needed to be met before I would be prepared to commit to anything. The organisation needed to be authentic, transparent, not for profit and with values and ideals that align with my own personal beliefs.

Secondly I am of not Armenian and only speak English so I needed to take this language barrier into consideration when looking for a suitable volunteer position. However I felt that my skills from working for 35 years in a range of jobs including horticulture, textile art/craft production, art/craft sales, art/craft teaching, gallery operation, art/craft conservation repair, museum conservation, office administration and project management could be put to practical use in Armenia. I have a degree in Visual Arts and a MA in Materials Conservation.

Thirdly I was open to any interesting volunteer projects that would effectively utilise my skills. But I was particularly interested in working/assisting women to extend/develop their textile production with a view to selling their items to increase their family income.

So with all these things relatively clear in my mind, I sat alone in the flat in Yerevan and began my search of the internet which I intersperse with visits to the local café for shots of thick, strong Armenia coffee to keep my mind focused!!

Armenian Red Cross Society

I had previously done volunteer work for the Australian Red Cross so I organise a meeting with staff at the Armenian Red Cross Society (ARCS). I was unsure exactly how I could contribute to this organisation but was open to any project and felt that my English language skills may be valuable. I was asked to assist with the Armenian Red Cross Society Project “Don’t Judge by the Cover”.

The basic aim of the six month project was to help reduce prejudices amongst the Armenian population towards foreigners by conducting a series of innovative and interactive “Human Library” (HL) discussion groups for university students and refugees with the results collected from these meetings to be used as recommendations to prepare the Republic of Armenia to deal with national cohesion policies.

Further detailed information on the project can be found on the ARCS Population Movement Department web site:

My tasks were clearly set out. I was to provide English editing assistance in the development of project materials and report writing and to attend and participate in workshop sessions and provide feedback to the project team.

Initially I was a little apprehensive about the project as I had not previously done this type of work. However I found the HL project extremely interesting and was very surprised to find that many of the prejudices expressed in Armenia are similar to those expressed towards refugees in Australia. AlthoughAustralia has refugees from other countries this is the first time that I have been directly involved with refugees and had an opportunity to hear their stories and learn how they adjust to life in a new country. Involvement in this HL project has most definitely made me more aware of the difficulties that refugees face and has made me more understanding and sympathetic of their situation.

Armenian Volunteer Corp

I was aware that my volunteer role with the ARCS would only be part time so I continued to search the web for other positions and came across AVC who miraculous had a position advertised in exactly the area I had wanted to work in!! The project was “Working with rural women to develop, produce and sell craft items thereby increasing their family income”. The position was with the newly formed “not for profit organisation” Homeland Handicrafts (HH) and I immediately submitted my details and met with AVC and commenced work shortly afterwards with HH. I believe that the planets had aligned in my favour with this volunteer position!!!

Homeland Handicrafts is a purely voluntary grass-roots organisation whose goal is to create jobs through a new generation of Armenian handicrafts, using traditional materials and techniques with the specific focus on women in rural locations.

Further detailed information on the project can be found on the Homelands Handicrafts web site:

The HH team was extremely creative and operated in an organic and egalitarian style.

My tasks were to help provide feed back on product designs, provide practical advice on product improvement, develop craft product prototypes, provide detailed instructions to accompany the prototypes, and source materials for prototypes and samples.

Returning to Australia

I will share my volunteer experiences with others when I return to Australia and am currently investigating the possibility of talking with several Armenian communities in the major Australian cities with the idea of promoting the AVC and Birthright Armenia programs.

Other – on a personal level.

I formed a close friendship with a young women who spoke an impressive four languages putting me to shame with my ability to communicate only in English! She was keen to improve her spoken English skills and we had fun chatting over coffee and visiting the art galleries and museums together. Through our discussions I learnt a lot about Armenia culture and history. It was also joy to see how much her understanding and ability to express herself in English improved over our months together, bearing out my belief that it is the little things that count in life.

I had contact with an Armenian family whose grandmother was unable to walk after a major medical operation. The family was desperately looking for a wheel chair and through a serendipitous set of circumstances I visited the Punick Disabled Centre in Yerevan who had just received a shipment of brand new wheelchairs from a USA donor. The family contacted the Punick Disabled Centre and was able to acquire a wheelchair without incurring any cost. I know how much this meant to the family and it was very humbling experience for me to have been able to make this connection for them. It was very much about being in the right place at the right time.


The volunteer role with the ARCS was not at all what I had initially envisaged but I embraced the challenge, shared peoples life stories, learnt a huge amount about the Armenian society and culture, and had the privilege of working with intelligent young women on this valuable humanitarian project.

I have to say that the role with HH provided some of the most stimulating, interesting and creatively challenging work that I have ever been involved in. I and am very grateful for this opportunity!

Through both my volunteer roles I met and worked with some very interesting people, learnt an enormous amount and was fortunate to travel extensively in the Armenian countryside and experience the people and culture in a very unique way. My only hope is that Armenia gained as much from my volunteering services as I gained from this experience!!!

By the way: I always received prompt and excellent support from AVC on any questions or requests I had during my volunteering. I have great admiration and respect for the enthusiasm of the AVC staff. I recommend this volunteer organisation without hesitation, even for a non Armenian such as myself!!

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Volunteering in Armenia-- A reflection

Sima Cunningham

What makes someone want to volunteer? This was a question I asked myself a lot during my time in Armenia. Not so much because I had just taken four months off of school to come to Armenia to volunteer, but more because I spent a good deal of my time there trying to encourage others that volunteering is a desirable thing to occupy your time with.

When I first arrived in Armenia I was told I was going to be volunteering at two locations: Manana Youth Education Center and Naregatsi Art Institute. I didn’t know much about what I would be doing beyond teaching an English class to an unknown number of students of an unknown age. The first couple of weeks, I honestly felt like I didn’t know what I was doing there. Here I was, a 20-year-old student who has never taught a formal class before, never written an official grant proposal and certainly never learned how to understand a budget. I’d volunteered a lot during my life: built houses, done food drives, flower-pot fundraisers and more, but I’d always had a pretty firm idea of what I was doing, and more often than not, someone to tell me exactly what to do.

This kind of volunteering was different. I soon realized that I was going to have full control over the creation of an hour long English class twice a week with anywhere between 8-20 kids from ages 9-16 with English abilities ranging from “hello” to Jane Eyre. I learned quickly that the grants that I was applying for were serious and heavily depended on my ability to complete them correctly. More than anything, I learned that when working in a new place, you have to be flexible and sometimes spend a lot of time listening and trying to understand before trying to change anything.

This kind of volunteering is not the kind of hammer-and-nail, soup-and-bread kind of volunteering that I was used to. It required a serious commitment of my mind and my energy. When I first realized this, I really intimidated me and I kept wishing that someone would just give me a manual and tell me exactly what to do with my students and how to best help my co-workers. These anxieties would come and go throughout my time in Armenia, but by the end when I was reflecting on my time, I felt that I’d left something good at each of my volunteer sites and also received so much from each as well, even if I hadn’t noticed along the way.

After my first class at Manana, I no longer feared teaching a class. I didn’t know how to cope with students of such diverse ages and capabilities, and I didn’t really know where to start. I decided to start with what I was good at: music. Something I quickly learned about Armenia, which seems to be true in much of the rest of world, is that the Beatles were the most important thing that happened—ever. I can’t tell you how many of my friends in Armenia answered the question “How did you learn English?” with “The Beatles”. My friend Elen, who had taught English at Manana before and was an avid Beatles fan, suggested I start there. My first lesson I had about 10 students. I cut up the lines from “With a little help from my friends” and handed each a line from the song. Then I had them each read their line out loud. Then I sang the whole song for them and had them line up in order of when they heard their line sung. Then we sang the whole song together. When we finished I looked around and they all had huge grins on their faces. After that, I did a similar exercise with the Shel Silverstein poem “The Long-Haired Boy” except I made them dramatically act out their lines.

With both Manana and Naregatsi I was asked to think of ways to help the organization, whether by finding grants online, or rethinking structures or fundraising efforts or organizing events that could help bring more people to the organization. This part was much harder for me. Interacting with children was easy, but writing official statements about an organization you barely knew, trying to understand how their budget works, and trying to understand all the dynamics of an organization was really difficult for me. Something that I learned about grants in the process of writing them is that you need a lot of planning. You have to try to guess how to present your organization perfectly to a foundation or government program to fit their specific goals, and even if your idea is brilliant, it may not be taken seriously if that idea is not already supported by a bunch of other organizations. It was a true challenge and sometimes I felt like I and my colleagues put a lot of work into a total shot-in-the-dark. Still, I learned so much from it, and despite the fact that the organization maybe didn’t receive the grant, I think they learned a lot from the process. For example, the process of writing a grant and fundraising made us have lengthy and in-depth conversations about how to develop the organizations, how to talk about what we do, what materials we were missing in order to present a complete, legitimate budget, where we could do better, how we could expand the organization, what grand project we would plan if we received this grant, etc. In this capacity I felt that I was very useful. As someone who’d grown up in the U.S., in non-profit arts organizations, in a far away place where free-market capitalism and its simultaneous philanthropic sector has existed for centuries, I had a very fresh perspective on how to operate in a non-profit arts world.

When I felt that I needed more time using the skills I felt most comfortable with (music and interacting with youth) I went to AVC and I asked if there was any way that I could do more of that. I was soon introduced to Warm Hearth, a home for adults with disabilities. I went to Warm Hearth for about 6 weeks and would play music and sing and dance with the residents there. They were so kind and welcoming to me and definitely the most appreciative when I managed to learn a new Armenian song. They were eager to stand up and perform for me as soon as I was too tired to perform for them. Soon after starting at Warm Hearth, I was introduced to a school for young autistic children. My first time there I sat and played about 2 hours of music (mostly my own, the Beatles, and any other folk tune I could come up with, sometimes just improvising). I looked around the room at the adults, sure that they were bored and unsure whether the kids were enjoying it at all. Sometimes the children would approach me and I decided to just sort of let them have at my guitar. After all, it was probably a pretty foreign object to most of them. I would say “Uzum ek navakel?” and one of them would come up. Sometimes they would just place their hand on mine while I was strumming, some would detune my guitar, some would bang on the wood, and one even took a liking to the taste of the strings. Still, I let them explore it as an object and it thrilled them. I watched their eyes grow in fascination as they realized that they could control the sound coming out of the guitar. From what I could tell, it really empowered them to be able to control sound.

During my last week in Armenia, I started to really feel like I didn’t want to leave. I organized an event for singer-songwriters at Naregatsi with seven songwriters from Armenia and the diaspora. The evening packed the place with lots of young faces who had seldom been to Naregatsi, a place that celebrates and preserves Armenian traditional art as well as encouraging new forms of art and music in the new generations. My students at Manana organized a party for me and we sang and danced together. They gave me a photo album with each of their pictures and a little note in Armenian so I could practice Armenian at home. I e-mailed them all on Armenian Christmas and got lots of excited, beautiful emails back which I responded to with glee. I can’t get enough of their energy and optimism.

I’m realizing now that I completely forgot to answer the question that I began this whole reflection with: what makes people want to volunteer? This was an important question for me because one of my main goals in Armenia was to convince my students that volunteering could be a thrilling experience. On December 5, fifteen of my students joined me at the cascade for International Volunteer Day. I gave them all trash bags and gloves and we spent the next 5 hours running around Yerevan picking up trash. I was really nervous that I was going to have to stop a lot and organize some fun game so they wouldn’t get tired, or bored, or upset or disappointed… but I didn’t. They had so much fun. They were running from courtyard to courtyard, climbing up trees to pick out trash, laughing and skipping all day (I know it sounds cheesy but its true!) When I finally made them take a break they were restless and wanted to get back out there. At the end of the day, they were all so happy and cheerful. One student even asked me if he could take some trash-bags with him on his way home to pick up trash. One asked if we could do this every day. I was so thrilled. It was clear to me that they had easily picked up the volunteering bug. It’s not really a bug or a foreign, “Western” concept. It’s the simple idea of doing something good for people and the world we live it. Though it was truly difficult to leave Armenia, and I honestly can’t wait to get back, I left with a smile on my face knowing that I’d helped a few people in Armenia realize what a joy it is to do something for someone else, whether it be picking up their trash, singing them a song, or just flashing them a smile.

This post originally appeared on Sima's own blog,, and is reproduced here with her permission and encouragement.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Volunteering in Gyumri - Armenia's Second largest city

Haig Balian
Toronto, Canada

Armenia’s second city – tucked up in a high valley north of Mount Aragatz - tends to get very cold, very quickly. The streets of Gyumri, already empty by the late evening when I first arrived there in September, were now dark and deserted by 8:30pm. The marshutkas were bursting with bundled up commuters, packs of dogs prowled the streets, and domigs – the temporary metallic shelters distributed in the wake of the Spitak earthquake – were still in use by a significant minority of the people here.

Gyumri in November did not seem like the happiest of places.

The latter half of my time in Gyumri was spent with Armenian Caritas, a pretty incredible organization headed by Anahit Mkhoyan. I’d gotten in touch with her because I wanted to organize something – anything – to acknowledge the domestic murder of a young Armenian woman named Zaruhi Petrosyan. Anahit asked why I wasn’t volunteering for Caritas. I didn’t have a good answer.

I’d been placed with Gala TV, an independent television station whose journalists and technicians I have an immense amount of respect for. On paper, this seemed like a great fit, but things just didn’t click. I can offer a couple of excuses: I’m not that comfortable with the medium of television, and my Armenian language skills are just not developed enough for reporting. The parting was an uncomfortable one, but at least I had alternatives.

At Caritas, I was tasked to work with Ophelia Minassian, easily my favorite colleague during the volunteering term in Gyumri. In early November, we went out to meet some of the beneficiaries who Caritas works with; seniors who, for the most part, live solitary lives and who rarely leave their homes.

Their desolation was striking. A few couldn’t take care of themselves, and it was common for some to burst into sobs, wondering why they’d been burdened with such a long life. Ophelia and her colleagues offered smiles, hugs, gifts, and a promise that they would return.

There were other projects. Work with children, work with teens, work with families, and women, and the homeless. With each project, the people at Caritas brought a sincere yearning to improve the lives of the people who lived in their community. I was very happy to be a part of it, and I hope my presence in some way contributed to their goals of making Gyumri a happier place.

Note: Haig Balian has since transitioned to Yerevan where he is volunteering with the National Competitiveness Foundation.

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