On a clear morning late last month, as their plane ascended from a runway at Zvartnots Airport, the young people taking part in this year’s Armenia Service Program were granted one final Instagram moment. And they didn’t let it go to waste.
Stretching in the foreground of their postcard-perfect shot are patches of farmland in the Araratian Valley, blocks of green, yellow and brown, crisscrossed with country roads. Further in, a village emerges and recedes into a deep mist, from which the twin peaks of the biblical Mount Ararat rise majestically into an orange-blue sky.
“This was my first visit to Armenia, and what surprised me the most is the beauty of the land,” said Noel Dawood of Waukegan, IL. “People always talk about how beautiful it is in Armenia, but until you see it with your own eyes, words don’t truly describe the breathtaking views that you get to experience.”
The Ararat snapshot is a perfect capstone to a journey filled with discovery, faith and service. The six young people taking part in this summer’s ACYOA Armenia Service Program (ASP) encountered Armenia’s geography and its religious and historic sites. But the three-week trip, from July 2 to July 20, was more than a tour of the homeland, participants said. It was also an introduction to the local way of life, and an opportunity to give back.
The group was led by the Rev. Fr. Tadeos Barseghyan, pastor of St. Sahag Church of St. Paul, MN. The ACYOA again partnered with the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) to prepare the service component of the itinerary, and group members volunteered at FAR’s Vanadzor Old Age Home and its Children’s Center in Yerevan.
Upon arriving in Yerevan, the group received a tour of the city, visiting major sites, including the Urartian-era fortress of Erebuni and the Dzidzernagapert memorial monument and museum. Fr. Barseghyan said it was especially moving to visit the Dzidzernagapert memorial in this centennial year of the Armenian Genocide. The group prayed there and sang the hymns Hayr Mer and Der Voghormya.
On their first Sunday in the homeland, they traveled to Vagharshapat, where they took part in the Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin and St. Gayane Church. They were received by His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, who welcomed the young pilgrims to their spiritual home and encouraged them to remain firm in their faith and Armenian identity.
Other highlights on the itinerary included stops at Garni, Armenia’s only surviving pagan temple, and the monasteries of Khor Virab, Geghard, Noravank, Haghartsin, and Datev, where the travelers rode the world’s longest aerial tramway across the Vorotan River Gorge to the ninth-century monastic complex.
On Lake Sevan, they climbed up a rocky path leading to the ninth-century St. Arakelots and St. Asdvadzadzin churches, and at Oshagan they recited a prayer at the tomb of St. Mesrob Mashdots.
In Vanadzor, the group was greeted by Archbishop Sebouh Chuljyan, Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Gougark. Archbishop Chuljyan introduced them to members of the local youth organization, who joined the ASP group on excursions in the area.
“It was inspiring to see the local youth group’s dedication to their church and community,” said Fr. Barseghyan. “They were very welcoming and we learned a great deal from them about the local way of life.”
During their weeklong stay, the ASP participants assisted at the Vanadzor Old Age Home. They helped tend to the garden, cleaned the grounds, and cooked and served meals. Above all, they spent time in fellowship with the home’s elderly residents, playing tavloo, signing Armenian folk songs, and sharing stories.
Returning to Yerevan, the group continued their service at the Fund for Armenian Relief Children’s Center, which offers at-risk children and their families shelter, counseling, outreach services, healthcare, and legal assistance. They spent several days getting to know the children through games and activities.
“Even though we only contributed a few hours a day volunteering, it seemed to go a long way with the folks at the Old Age Home and at the Children’s Center,” Noel said. “It was heartwarming to see the smiles on their faces.”
Fr. Barseghyan hosted the group for dinner at his family home in Zvartnots. They spent an evening picking apricots in the garden, grilling meat, and meeting Fr. Barseghyan’s family.
“It was very rewarding for me to take a group to a place where I was born and raised, and to see them being inspired by this place and connecting to it,” he said.
The ASP participants also enjoyed family-style dinners with local hosts throughout their journey. They stopped for lunch and dinner at homes in villages, experiencing the rich flavors of the Armenian kitchen. They saw lavash baked in a traditional in-ground pit, or tonir; tasted sweet white mulberries and sour plums; and enjoyed the refreshing yogurt drink tan.
“Everyone we met was very welcoming of us, opening up their homes and making us feel like family,” Noel said.
Everywhere they went, the young people learned something new—about Armenia and about themselves.
“The Armenia Service Program is not only about a visit,” Fr. Barsegyan said. “It’s about experiencing the everyday way of life and doing something good for your homeland.”