When Khachik Avetisian brought his 11-member family back home to Armenia from Russia in 2007, his relatives questioned why he would leave a steady job for the uncertainty of life in his native Myasnikian village in Armavir province.
The village of about 3,500 had little land for cultivation and didn’t even have clean drinking water, but: “After a few years in Russia we decided to go back, because there is nothing better than your native land, nature and people,” says the 58-year-old.
By good fortune, Avetisian’s return coincided with the startup of work by the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) in Myasnikian. Through its economic development program, COAF helped the Avetisians get a $10,000 bank loan that they used to open a food market. Since then, the family has expanded its business and now also sells prepared foods. Avetisian estimates that in 2010 the family did about $95,000 in total (gross) business.
“Through COAF we finally were able to settle down in our homeland and to set up our business where only members of our family work—father, mother, two sons with their wives. We created jobs for ourselves. If we consider that we are, in fact, three families and all of us live secure lives, I think it is a very great achievement,” says the entrepreneur.
COAF was founded in 2000 by Armenian-American philanthropist Dr. Garo Armen. Myasnikian is one of twelve villages in the Armavir province of the Baghramian region where COAF has been carrying out large-scale projects, after opening an office in Armenia in 2003. Garo Armen’s vision, expressed through COAF, has been to apply a comprehensive approach to revive rural communities and reduce poverty.
COAF began in the village of Karakert in 2004. The programs have expanded to the nearby communities of Argina, Dalarik, Lernagog, Myasnikian, Shenik, Hushakert, Yervandashat, and Baghramian. Last year COAF started projects in the villages of Aragatsavan and Arteni in the Aragatsotn province of the Talin region. An estimated 25,000 people, of whom more than 5,000 are children, benefit from various COAF programs.
The villages chosen by COAF had once been industrial centers where people had been brought from different villages for work during Soviet times. After the collapse of the USSR, factories were either closed immediately, or continued working at a fraction of their capacities. As a result, a large number of residents found themselves jobless and without any means of sustenance.
“The most important feature of our organization is that we carry out our work exclusively in villages, because in Armenia there is a large disparity between towns and villages. Villages are mostly ignored, and consequently have problems. The main investments are generally made in cities and towns, while villages are in greater need of these projects,” says COAF Country Director Serob Khachatrian.
COAF is primarily funded by generous donations made by individuals in the Diaspora, and at an annual charity dinner held in New York City. For the past two years fundraisers have been organized in Armenia, too. Since 2004 over $15 million has been raised.
COAF’s main objective is to restore infrastructure, education, healthcare, child and family support services, as well as rural economic development in the region. It had been through one of COAF’s economic development projects that the Avetisians received assistance.
Propping up economies
COAF began to actively engage in economic projects in 2011, making investments in the village of Arteni in the Aragatsotn province of the Talin region.
People in the village of Arteni, which is located 63 kilometers (39 miles) from the provincial center, were mainly engaged in grape growing during Soviet times, and their produce was sold to a processing plant that had a capacity to receive about 5,000 tons. However, the plant has been shut down for more than a decade, leaving hundreds of people in the region without jobs.
“Although our village is in a zone with a suitable climate for agriculture, much of the land has not been cultivated for years because of a lack of machinery,” says Gegham Khlghatian, one of about 3,800 residents of Arteni. “In 2011 we turned to the COAF and began implementing a series of economic programs, for which about 20 million drams (about $52,300) have been invested.”
Last year COAF helped the village acquire farm equipment and—as an example of COAF’s emphasis on sustainable development—set up a repair and maintenance center to ensure that the equipment did not fall into disrepair.
“The purchase of tractors was very important for our village, because the agricultural year in these parts begins at the same time in all villages, and without tractors Arteni residents had to wait for farmers in the nearby villages to complete their work with their machinery so as to borrow it later. Naturally, the work of our farmers was behind, and sometimes because of late sowing a villager could not get a timely harvest,” says Khlghatian, expressing a hope that the purchased equipment will contribute significantly to the village’s economic growth.
COAF is also assisting in economic programs that enable local entrepreneurs to receive training courses in such things as creating business plans. Business development loans are also offered.
In 2011, about 50 people from villages in Armenia’s Aragatsotn and Armavir provinces took part in two-month business training courses. Several projects emerged from the courses, including the establishment of a milk-processing plant.
Country Director Khachatrian says that COAF began as a charitable organization, but it does not want people to be dependent on charity, which is why COAF works with local structures to develop business.
“In general, money in Armenia flows towards Yerevan, and as a result the provinces live in poverty. People have to go to Yerevan to buy everything from furniture to food. Now we try to keep the money locally, so that local people benefit from it,” says Khachatrian.
The Artvinshin furniture manufacturing company is the only enterprise of its kind in the Baghramian area, and an example of how COAF integrates its efforts. COAF helped to establish the company in the village of Karakert.
“In Karakert COAF implements renovations of schools, kindergartens and other infrastructure and provides them with new furniture,” says the Artvinshin furniture company founding director, 32-year-old Artur Yengibarian. “I set up a production shop to manufacture such furniture, and keep the money in the village. The Fund helped me, and after the launching of the production shop, for the past few years we’ve worked with them and have supplied furniture for all facilities repaired by them.”
Over the years production has been expanded, and now the company also produces windows and doors. The company provides jobs to six employees who earn a monthly salary of at least 100,000 drams (about $260). The number of workers, depending on the availability of orders from customers, increases to as many as 16.
Education is key
Among COAF’s priority projects are those concerning education.mmmmmmmmmmm“We consider that it is impossible to do without an educated generation, and we think very often that poverty is the result of a lack of education,” says COAF Education Program Manager Nara Martirosian.
In COAF Country Director Khachatrian’s opinion, the efficiency of educational programs doubles when conditions are created for providing a comfortable learning environment.
“If there is no toilet in a school, if the windows are broken, if it is cold inside, then it is pointless to speak about the quality of education. That is why we try to repair the infrastructure,” says Khachatrian, adding that during eight years COAF has renovated and refurbished five schools, three kindergartens and one cultural center, providing them with modern facilities.
The village of Lernagog, which is in the Armavir province’s Baghramian region, is located about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the provincial center of Armavir. The village is home to about 2,000. As recently as four or five years ago, the local school was in awful condition.
Koryun Makarian, the principal at Lernagog, has worked at the school since 1980 and has been its headmaster since 1986. He remembers that even during the last years of the Soviet Union—more than 20 years ago—the school already was in need of repairs.
“Over the years the roof had started to leak and the building began to get ruined. During the crisis of the early 1990s the heating went out, and for nearly two decades lessons at the school were reduced to 25-30 minutes (from 45 minutes), with pupils sitting around an oil-burning heater,” the school principal remembers.
Today, no trace is left of the once-dilapidated building. The school with 243 pupils and 31 teachers fully complies with modern standards.
“God has sent us the Children of Armenia Fund, due to which our school was finally fully renovated. Old furniture was replaced with new, a new heating system with a local boiler was installed, and today the minimum temperature is 20 degrees Celsius (68 F) and our children come to school happily,” says Makarian.
Now the school also offers special-interest programs, such as English language studies, dancing, basketball, photography, computer sciences, and craftsmanship, which also contributes to raising the general quality of education.
“Life should not be limited to school only,” says COAF education program manager Martirosian, adding that student councils are also set up. “Children have a lot of spare time that needs to be filled. That’s why we created different groups, and introduced a new learning culture that we apply through extracurricular activities.”
COAF also provides grants to teachers who come up with innovative projects. Four teachers in Lernagog’s school have received grants of $500 each for such projects.
For example, several teachers submitted a group project for students of the Lernagog school to gather rocks and form them to the number 1915 on the hillside in front of the village in order to commemorate the date of the Armenian Genocide. A stone cross was installed on the territory, and has become a sort of symbolic pilgrimage site where a majority of the village’s residents go with torches every April 24th.
The Myasnikian school, attended by 563 pupils, was repaired due to joint funding from the Small-Scale Infrastructure Program of the United States Agency for International Development ($50,000), the Myasnikian community administration (1.5 million drams, about $4,000) and the Children of Armenia Fund ($120,000).
The school in the village of Myasnikian was repaired by COAF and opened to students last November. This has become the fifth school to be renovated by COAF in the province, following the schools in Karakert, Shenik, Dalarik, and Lernagog.
The Myasnikian village school headmistress Zubeyda Hovhannisian says that the school—which opened in 1980—had never undergone major renovation. Sometimes cosmetic repairs were completed in some parts with the support of schoolchildren’s parents.
“The school today has a library, media and training centers that meet modern standards, computers and internet connection,” says Hovhannisian.
“These conditions have made our work immeasurably better,” says Lilia Shahnazarian, a mathematics teacher for 32 years. “The quality of our education process, and the attitude towards learning has completely changed. Studying in such a school creates a positive impression among children. Seeing and working in such buildings, a person understands that he or she lives, and not just survives, as it used to be before.”
Body as well as mind
COAF projects also attend to rural health issues.
Lusine Sahakyan, who is in charge of COAF healthcare projects, says that three medical out-patient clinics have been renovated, and in 2010, a health center opened in the Myasnikian to serve the Baghramian area’s 15 villages with a total population of about 22,000. The clinic has modern facilities and is one of a kind in the region.
According to the polyclinic’s director Gagik Harutiunian, the previous building was in very bad condition:
“While in the past a patient was served in non-hygienic conditions, today patients come to a building that is better than hospitals in Yerevan, an establishment that has a professional staff, modern appliances and a good supply of medicines,” says Harutiunian, adding that the polyclinics can accept up to 200 patients a day. The former facility had a capacity for just 60 patients a day.
In addition to upgrading infrastructure, COAF also conducts training courses, to raise the professionalism and skills of local medical specialists, nurses, and educators. Further, COAF teaches community healthcare education in the villages, offers psychological services to children and families, and applies the latest medical technologies to help fight disease in the region.
“The uniqueness of this organization is that we are trying to treat a rural community as something integral and apply a comprehensive approach. We cannot just repair a school without also developing teachers’ skills; we cannot make a healthcare facility effective by simply supplying it with equipment, without providing an opportunity for doctors and nurses to raise their professionalism,” says Khachatrian.
In six villages COAF is also implementing a socio-psychological program called “Child and Family Services.” As part of this program, psychological services are provided to the community by social workers.
“Initially we retrained local personnel, conducted training sessions among social workers, and now we have a seven-member group that offers services of a very high level,” says Child & Family Services Program Coordinator Gayane Asatrian.
As part of the program, specialists work with children who have learning and speech difficulties, as well as with pregnant women, and people with disabilities.
Part of COAF’s approach includes keeping community civic centers operating year-round.
“If the infrastructure is renovated, then it should serve the children to the fullest. That is why the schools repaired by us are not closed during vacations,” says Khachatrian. In summer, schools are used to host summer camps, attended by more than 700 children from different villages.
Renovated schools, kindergartens, health facilities, education, economic and other projects implemented in 12 villages of the western region of Armenia have made life demonstrably better and revived hopes for a better future.
“We see specific people whose lives have been changed, who have found some success. This is the greatest achievement of our organization,” says Country Director Khachatrian.
To learn more about COAF, please visit: www.coafkids.org.