Leon Tokatlian

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An Unlikely Christmas Gift to Vanadzor Orphanage

Posted by Tom Vartabedian on November 18, 2012

Every so often, a story comes along that is bound to warm the cockles of your heart, especially during Christmas.

You may not know Leon Tokatlian, but to the hiking world throughout the northeast, he’s like the man in the mountain—Armenia’s answer to Sir Edmund Hillary, who successfully climbed Mount Everest in 1953 while blazing a trail for others to follow.

In some ways, Tokatlian is cut from the same cloth. He spends his days and weeks hiking mountains and taking other climbers with him. The last we heard, he’d scaled some of the more prominent peaks in the world, including Nepal, Peru, Mongolia, and Ecuador.

And just for conditioning, he hops atop Mount Washington in New Hampshire twice a month to keep in shape for his other climbs. If a journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step, then climbing mountains and scaling the greatest heights of this universe is his stairway to paradise.

Thus begins this story. A group of his odar hiking buddies were looking to chart new inroads and their journey took them to Armenia. No doubt, Tokatlian was an influence in this destination, given his active ethnic upbringing.

While meandering throughout the country, their journey took them to the Vanadzor Orphanage. They found the orphanage needed help very badly and upon their return to the states, the hikers decided to band together and make a Christmas donation to the facility.

One of those climbers was Mitch Manseau, and the orphanage’s plight left an indelible mark upon him and the others.

“The day before leaving Armenia and traveling to Georgia on a Southern Caucasus tour, we visited the orphanage in Vanadzor in north-central Armenia,” he reports. “The management and staff were doing the maximum for these children with slim resources and even sending some of the students to the university.”

Manseau continued, “The youth were endearing and seemed part of a very extended, warm family. The older kids were big brothers and sisters to the younger ones, and all were learning life-supporting skills and academics on which to build strong futures.”

The orphanage at Vanadzor was established 15 years ago with 30 orphans, beggars and children abandoned by their families.

According to the orphanage statute, healthy children from infants to 16-year-olds find a home and school there. Currently, there are 116 children, many of whom are enrolled in secondary and high schools. Several boys were called to the national army in recent years.

While touring the orphanage, these hikers received an earful from the guides. There’s a dire need to expand, build a sports gym, and increase the number of bedrooms and workshops.

“It truly opened our eyes,” said Manseau. “When we returned home, we volunteered to help out this orphanage with a combined Christmas gift in the name of our climbing federation. Turns out that it’s a bit complicated to get dollars there and requires some banking activity best accomplished by bundling.”

According to Manseau, the group’s treasurer will combine donations into a single contribution and work it through channels to arrive at Vanadzor before Christmas.

It’s that time of year when charity hits home. The best gift we can give is to help others in need, whether it’s to an orphanage in Armenia or some other worthy cause in our midst, like Camp Haiastan, Project SAVE, ALMA, or any number of our Armenian schools and churches. The list is endless.

Money aside, provisions are just as tangible. For years, St. Gregory Armenian Church in North Andover, where I belong, has adopted a charity called House of Hope, to which parishioners bring clothing and non-perishables.

Our children play an important part in this project. Not only do they conduct individual drives, but a representation will be on hand to make the disbursement.

It teaches them the importance of sharing and the gratitude they receive surely outweighs the sacrifice. Whether it’s Vanadzor or elsewhere, if you are not poor enough to take charity, you are rich enough to give it.

Persons wishing to help the Vanadzor Orphanage can send a check to NHFC, P.O. Box 974, Plymouth, NH 03264.