There is nothing like the opportunity to spend several days with my cousin, Armine Hovannisian, founder of Orran, an Armenian after school program for beggar children.
My recent trip to Orran validated the term my dad uses to describe Armine. He calls her "Mother Armenia." He says one day the people will elect her president. I don't know if he means it figuratively or literally, but I can see both happening.
Armine is so down to earth -- she's the salt of Armenia's earth. She talks to anyone, and seems to be everywhere. I walked into her office on my first day to see her picture on the cover of a local paper which she dismisses, saying, "I thought they were going to photoshop that!"
The people who know her best are the 100-plus beggar children in downtown Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, who come to the shelter she formed with her husband in 2000. Orran, which means "haven" in Armenian, started with 16 children brought off the street. It is a charity that provides the country's poorest youth with food, nurturing and educational and vocational training.
Armine summed up her regimen the day after I arrived, "I'll wake up in the morning, clean my toilet, then I'll speak to a crowd of thousands in Liberty Square."
After being gone for more than 10 hours visiting Orran's second location in earthquake-ridden Vanadzor, we pull up to her house to be confronted by her 90-year-old neighbor. He claims his family (that he lives with) doesn't feed or care for him and asks Armine to help him move to an elderly home. She hands him a loaf of bread she had bought that day which brings him to tears. She promises to help him relocate to a better place.
Once inside she sighs, "Can you believe how awful people can be?"
In Armine's sparse and cold office at Orran, she breathes life. Her staff march in one after the other, vying for her time, pleading for her counsel and seeking her approval.
When it comes down to it, she simply wants to give Armenia's indigent families a sense of dignity and hope. She already has done that actually, for thousands, but she is not done.
My visit consisted of setting up meetings with potential donors, which isn't hard because everyone wants to meet Armine. She's like the girl next door, the friend you always wanted and the (not so old) woman who lived in a shoe. She cares for her staff, the 150 children and elderly who come through Orran's doors six days a week, her real family of five children in addition to her husband and her extended family that lives more than 5,000 miles away in Southern California.
A year ago, a philanthropist builder asked Armine to find homeless families in Vanadzor to fill an apartment building he wanted to donate to the poor. He said that she was the only one he could trust to seek out the families most in need. To fulfill this request she spent days visiting people living in deplorable conditions. The ultimate reward, she said, was going back to the families she had selected, and seeing the reaction of their faces when told they had a new home.
You'd think Armine feels rewarded every day seeing the difference she makes in hundreds of peoples' lives. To her, though, there is simply more to do.
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