Birthright Armenia's mission is to strengthen ties between the homeland and diasporan youth by affording them an opportunity to be a part of Armenia's daily life and to contribute to Armenia's development through work, study and volunteer experiences, while developing a renewed sense of Armenian identity.
BIRTHRIGHT ARMENIA ERASES BORDERS WITH STRONG ALUMNI NETWORK
Birthright Armenia has answered the question on how to bring young Armenian leaders together in both the "virtual" world and the real one, with the formation of an active alumni network that spans the globe. With nearly 200 sponsored Birthright participants from 13 different countries in its network, this challenge has been no small feat for the growing organization. However, by adding new activities to its already successful alumni program, Birthright Armenia has proven that when it comes to making a difference, borders should not mean barriers.
The importance of alumni is not a new premise for the nearly four-year-old organization, as it was founded on a philosophy that only through strong ties to the homeland would young adults be energized to take on leadership positions within the Diaspora. In fact, the idea of a strong alumni network was based on continued youth involvement after completing their initial volunteer service. The ultimate goal? Keep the youth engaged and eventually they would become leaders of the numerous diasporan organizations throughout the world, bridging the gap between countries, languages and beliefs.
Recent AVC volunteer and Birthright Armenia participant Sophie Malkasian, who volunteered with Heifer International in the southern region of Armenia, is one recent example of the success Birthright has achieved with its alumni. After spending nine full months of her one-year internship in tin the village of Getap, Sophie personally raised over $28,000 to move her homestay family in Yeghegnadzor to a home of their own. Now Sophie herself, both living and working in Yerevan, calls Armenia her own home.
Linda Yepoyan, Birthright Armenia's executive director, notes that while volunteers are offered significant opportunities to immerse themselves in Armenian culture through language instruction, havaks, forums, excursions, and homestays during their initial volunteer service, true success will only be realized by helping these volunteers fulfill a lasting impact in both the Homeland and the diasporan communities in which they live. "The biggest assets we have are our alumni and we are constantly looking for opportunities to help them channel their energies" she says.
One of the biggest success stories for Birthright Armenia's program has been its Continuing Involvement Proposal initiative, where each volunteer makes a promise to continuously support the Homeland. Yepoyan states that these "promises" are the result of life-changing experiences. "They feel strongly about spreading the word to others who may not know about all the opportunities to do good in Armenia," she elaborates. While every volunteer is required to complete a Continuing Involvement Proposal, Birthright Armenia has gone one step further in helping volunteers make their proposals become reality. By establishing the Alumni Next Step Fund, former volunteers can apply for monetary assistance up to $2500 for projects benefiting the Armenian community. The decision-making committee for proposals is even staffed entirely with Birthright alumni.
Twenty-four-year-old AVC volunteer and Sacramento native Tamara Shahabian was the first to plant the seed for a future Alumni Next Step project, which is well underway. Her first art show in the spring of 2006 featured artwork created by the children of Gyumri's Aesthetic Center, a school/orphanage that promotes cultural education and development in children and youth from 4 to 20 years of age. With that show resulting in a huge success, she was encouraged to start a new non-profit organization called Artworks Armenia (http://www.artworksarmenia.org ), which kicked off its inaugural art exhibition and sale of Armenian children's art on March 30 in New York City. The show brought in over $10,000, which all goes back to the children in Armenia. Since Tamara's success, there have been several other projects funded, including Seta Iskanderian's Project Harmony, a women's center in Nagorno-Karabagh.
Birthright Armenia is planning its first official alumni reunion in Armenia this summer to run from June 29-July 8, 2007. While it will include a number of excursions, social/cultural events, and educational meetings with young Armenian leaders, more importantly, it will also include community service activities throughout the week, including a "leave-behind" project. This project will give former volunteers the opportunity to give something back to the Armenian community in a more lasting way.
Recognizing the importance of online visibility, and the need to provide our growing alumni base a place to keep in touch, Birthright is spending considerable time redesigning the organization's Web site (www.birthrightarmenia.org) in order to increase usage from both outside patrons and alumni. Users on the "new" site will soon be able to post personal blogs, videos and photos, as well as personal profiles. "The internet is rapidly evolving how people, specially the younger generation, communicate. We want to be cutting edge as far as offering the choices that most of our visitors want to see on our Web site", said Yepoyan.
One of the key ways Birthright Armenia has kept alumni from all its various sponsoring organizations within reach is through the quarterly Alumni Newsletter. Not only does it provide information on new happenings within the Birthright organization and its members, but it has also promoted continued alumni involvement in the organization's growth. Similar to theWeb site and the wealth of presentations made by former Birthright participants fulfilling their Continuing Involvement Proposals, the newsletter serves as a fountain of inspiration for what others are doing to help Armenia.
The continuing involvement proposals, alumni reunion, Alumni Next Step fund, Web site redesign and quarterly newsletter are some of the ways Birthright Armenia is striving to keep the former volunteers it has sponsored involved and engage them as community leaders. The organization is serious about its commitment to the Homeland and the future of its people. "Each alumni volunteer represents a unique potential ready to be tapped by his or her community. With our alumni program we just serve as a conduit to keep the flame within each volunteer warm until they are tapped by their communities for leadership roles, or they on their own decide to make that commitment to do more in Armenia like opening a business or repatriating," says Yepoyan.