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Group's Birthday Brings Gift to Armenia's Students

April 23, 2000|INDRANEEL SUR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GLENDALE — For its 50th birthday, one nonprofit corporation here has been asking for gifts--and promptly giving them away.

The Armenian Educational Foundation, established in 1950, is more than half-finished with a plan to rebuild 50 schools in the border lands of Armenia that had crumbled under years of neglect by the former Soviet Union. Foundation directors are counting on individual gifts to help them foot the expected $700,000 bill for all renovations, expected to be finished by October.

Labor from Armenian villagers and a favorable exchange rate are allowing the foundation to stretch its dollars into dreams.

They are modest dreams, directors said. Some of the 50 schools were damaged by the December 1988 earthquake that killed 25,000 and destroyed 58 villages in a landlocked nation slightly smaller than Maryland.

Other schools deteriorated under both the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the cash-strapped independent Armenian government in the 1990s. Fixing the leaky or collapsed roofs, cracked floors, shattered windows and barely functioning bathrooms in these schools is the foundation's priority, directors said.

"Although we are often asked to buy furniture and school materials, we are limiting our contribution to infrastructure," said Herand Der Sarkissian, the Glendale architect supervising the repair efforts.

He said this focus allows the foundation to help more border villages. Many families have fled the villages because of scant jobs and poor public facilities, Der Sarkissian said.

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More than two dozen California families have agreed to help finance the anniversary project, and more donors are being sought.

To finish the renovations, the foundation can also tap into investment income from its $2.7-million endowment as well as money from its annual membership fees, Der Sarkissian said. Nearly 60 people pay $500 a year for memberships in the foundation, which is based in Glendale, home to an estimated 50,000 people of Armenian ancestry.

Arthur Mangassarian gave several thousand dollars after a friend introduced him to the foundation.

"This is one of the best ways of helping my fellow people in Armenia to create a society in the future," the Glendale real estate broker said. "My main focus is to help students who want to study so they can have a better place to go."

Among the schools under repair is one in Areni, a village 65 miles from the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

Varoujan Koundakjian, a foundation member who toured several schools in February, watched as workers put a new roof on the building and touched up interiors. Then, joined by the village mayor and the school principal, he visited a class of thankful third-graders.

"The kids are very involved," Koundakjian said. "They know it's something coming from the United States to help them."

Koundakjian, owner of a Torrance firm that cuts diamonds for computer chips, was accompanied on the trip by an official from the Armenian Ministry of Education. The ministry helped the foundation determine which schools needed renovation.

The Areni repairs cost about $9,000, all financed by a donor, Der Sarkissian said. The foundation expects to finish repairs to all 50 buildings for a fraction of the cost of expensive California public school projects.

Charges are kept down, in part because area residents volunteer their time to help lay bricks and install windows, and labor the foundation does pay for is much cheaper than that available in Western countries. Some building materials are imported to Armenia but others are bought within the country, and the strength of the American dollar relative to the Armenia currency--the dram--helps, Koundakjian said.

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The anniversary campaign is perhaps the most ambitious the foundation has taken on in Armenia since its inception five decades ago.

"We did not do any work in Armenia while it was under Communist rule," said Vahak Petrossian, a former foundation president whose family has paid for repairs at several schools. Instead, donors for years had funded Armenian schools throughout California and in countries with large ethnic Armenian enclaves, including Greece, Iran, Syria and Lebanon, Petrossian said.

That changed after the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that leveled much of Armenia in 1988, the same year the foundation had raised $500,000 to pay for a permanent chair of Armenian studies at UCLA, Petrossian said.

Joining sister Armenian charities throughout the Southland, the foundation refocused efforts to help the motherland cope with its devastation.

Thawing Cold War hostilities and the attainment of Armenian independence in 1991 made it easier to find politically acceptable projects.

But for Southern California charities, overseeing activities more than 10,000 miles away can be a challenge.

For that, the foundation has depended on Stepan Nalbandyan, a church architect in Yerevan. Nalbandyan selects contractors for school repairs, handles invoices and makes payments on the foundation's behalf, Der Sarkissian said. Directors supplement this surveillance with trips of their own about every three months.

"In our project we are very careful," Koundakjian said. "We think there is not one penny spent on somebody cheating or eating."

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Although the school renovations are extensive, much more remains to be done. The current campaign, for instance, does not pay for textbooks, school supplies or computers.

Money raised might be used later to buy these materials, directors said.

Village residents, meanwhile, are doing their utmost to help celebrate the anniversary. In Areni, they pressed Koundakjian to take nearly a hundred bottles of the hearty wine for which the town is famous.

Koundakjian settled for a handful of bottles, which he shared with foundation directors at a recent meeting.

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