PICO RIVERA — This is the time of year when Arpi Jinbashian, the student body president of Mesrobian Armenian School, expected to be happily checking details of the senior class ski trip.
Instead, she leaned on a counter in the principal's office, addressing letters asking for donations for survivors of the earthquake that devastated Soviet Armenia on Dec. 7. "Everything else has been put aside," said Jinbashian, 17, who along with her 500 schoolmates has raised about $50,000 for the earthquake relief effort. "We just want to get the Armenians who did survive back on their feet."
Classes were dismissed last week at Mesrobian School as part of a 40-day mourning period declared by the Armenian church, and most of the students spent the time off collecting donations, Principal Viken Balian said. On Monday morning, a few of the students' parents sat around an oak table in a school office, sorting money collected over the weekend and placing the bills in shoe boxes labeled "Armenian Earthquake Fund."
Staffing Donation Tables
The students "have done a terrific job," said Balian, principal of the private school that emphasizes Armenian language, history and culture as part of its curriculum. "They come to me and when I don't allow them to go out (and collect) they get angry at me."
Classes are back in session this week at the school, but there are still afternoons, evenings and weekends to dedicate to the relief effort. About 5,000 solicitation letters are being sent to Southeast-area businesses, and students are continuing to staff donation tables outside local stores.
Mesrobian school has been designated an official collection point for the Armenian Relief Society of Western U.S.A. Inc., the main agency coordinating relief efforts. The school, 8110 Paramount Blvd., is accepting donations from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. The Relief Society uses the money to ship medicine, food, clothing and other supplies to Armenia.
The fund-raising drive began the day of the earthquake, after initial reports of minor damage in the Soviet republic of Armenia gave way to subsequent news that thousands had been killed. The death toll has reached about 50,000, with another 500,000 left homeless.
"It was such a big shock to all of us," said Jinbashian. "But the relief effort was an instantaneous kind of thing. We had to do it."
But the determination to help the earthquake victims was not always enough to dull the anguish of those at Mesrobian whose relatives remain in Armenia.
Mesrobian music teacher Venera Sandaldjian, who emigrated from Armenia 10 years ago, did not find out until 4 days after the disaster that her sister had survived the collapse of her home.
"I'm happy about my sister, but I'm not happy about our people," said Sandaldjian, clutching a tattered tissue in one hand. "I watch TV and I cry all the time."
Mesrobian ninth-grader Mariam Petikian learned in a frantic telephone call from an aunt in Syria that her grandmother, aunt and uncle had survived.
"Their whole building collapsed," said Petikian, 14. "My dad was so sad. All he did was sit in front of the TV and watch the news."
The school's students, from preschoolers to 12th-graders, are remembering the dead by wearing black ribbons pinned to their lapels for the 40-day mourning period. The school's flags are at half staff. All athletic events and school dances have been canceled, as has the senior ski trip.
Now, the students face the task of persuading donors to continue contributing to the relief effort, Jinbashian said.
"In the beginning, the response was great," Jinbashian said. "Now what we hear is, 'We've already donated.' It's so sad because what they don't realize is that it's going to take years and a lot of money to rebuild."