Camp Haiastan of The Armenian Youth Federation, Inc. is located in the picturesque town of Franklin, in beautiful Southeastern Massachusetts. Just north of Providence, Rhode Island and southwest of Boston, Massachusetts,
722 Summer St Franklin, MA 02038-2316 (508) 528-0505
Camp Haiastan History
By Anoush Arakelian
FRANKLIN, Mass.—On June 23, three days into Staff Week 2010 at Camp Haiastan, the counselors and staff members were paid a visit by some notable AYFers and former staff members—namely, Harry Kushigian, Mal Varadian, Mesrob Odian, Rosanne Chebookjian, and Lucy Semerjian.
Baron Roy Callan prefaced their talks by telling the counselors that they “need to know where we came from in order to keep moving forward.” Building on our experiences and where our legacies come from was the general theme of the few hours the counselors spent with these influential Armenians.
Former Baron Mesrob Odian talked about the history of Camp Haiastan. The camp was only an idea that started from donations as small as $0.25. In addition, it was built when power tools were not even around yet. The first few sessions of Camp Haiastan, in 1951, had around 12 boys and 7 girls. People volunteered their time to help chop trees and drag wood from one part of the camp to the other. “The concept of volunteering, of owning this place and passing it down has never changed,” said Odian. However, many things have changed at Camp Haiastan. Today, the camp has over 8,000 campers hailing from over 21 different states and countries, and has over 3 generations of families who have attended.
Former Baron Pete Jelalian, who recently passed the torch on to Digin Margo Dinkjian, said that by the age of 15 he knew two things: that he “wanted to teach and be the director of Camp Haiastan.” He had one person to thank for this edification, former Baron Harry Kushigian.
Kushigian explained to the staff what it took to be a counselor. “You have to be multi-faceted. You must harness respect. But there is a fine line between being buddy-buddy and having respect. Act with propriety.” He described how many of his campers truly believed he could read lips. No one got away with anything because they were worried that he was always reading their lips to find out what they had planned for the night.
The counselors also had the pleasure of listening to Mal Varadian, also known as “Uncle Mal,” who spoke about making an impact. He explained how easy it was to mess up one’s relationship with the camp and how critical it is to form sturdy bonds with fellow Armenians. “Don’t ever break this trust. If you know someone that is going to break the trust of the camp, go after them like a hawk,” preached Varadian.
Lucy Semerjian was the first nurse at Camp Haiastan. She spoke about how inspired the town of Franklin was when they learned about the dream for an Armenian camp. Semerjian knew that the camp did not have a lot of money, so she volunteered her time and was given a radio as a gift for all of her work. Another visitor, Roseanne Chebookjian, was one of the visionaries who helped build the camp from a piece of land worth $5,000, 60 years ago. “Being an optimist with pessimistic undertones, I thought their dream would never materialize, but admiring their aspirations, I stayed on,” she told counselors. Back in 1946, standing at a small 4’8” and looking out at the land that would one day be Camp Haiastan, she thought, “Oh my God, they are going to make a camp out of this? The grass was taller than I was.”
These few hours had a huge impact on the counselors as they went on with their day. It was made completely clear that the future was in their hands and the legacy of Camp Haiastan had been passed on. Varadian closed simply, saying, “So I want to ask you, what are you going to do for next year?” To which everyone responded, “Make it better than it was.”