Story with a Heart: Javian and Friend Help Heart Disease Victims And Their Families


By Aram Arkun

NEW YORK — Michelle Javian transformed personal tragedy into an opportunity to help others in pain. Her father’s death from heart disease opened her eyes to the need for financial, moral and informational support of victims of this disease and their families, who often have to travel to hospitals in distant cities for treatment and face great financial distress along with the direct effects of the disease. She and Yuki Kotani, whose father has struggled with heart disease and who herself has a congenital heart defect, founded a New York City-based nonprofit organization called Harboring Hearts in order to alleviate the needs of other sufferers and their families as much as is humanly possible.

Javian, born in Queens, grew up in Long Island and was active with her family in Holy Martyrs Armenian Church in Bayside. She went to Sunday school, picnics and Camp Nubar and still has numerous Armenian friends. She graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in health studies, which focuses on the administrative or economic side of health professions. Then she moved to Manhattan and began a marketing job in the healthcare division of Bank of America. The normal progression of her career was interrupted by her father’s sickness. He was in the hospital for nearly two years, and then passed away in April 2008.

Javian recalled, “While he was there, there were so many families that had traveled to the city for treatment from all around the world.”

Javian met her organization’s cofounder, Kotani, at this period. Kotani’s father had come from Japan because of his own illness and was going to be operated on by the same surgeon as Javian’s father. Javian realized, “There were so many families without financial resources to stay in the city. I was 25 years old and passion gave me the energy to start this.”

The two decided to help the families of heart disease sufferers. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, yet no organization existed to help families overcome the high costs of staying in the large cities where the major hospitals that carry out heart transplants and other complex operations are located. It took more than eight months for the necessary paperwork to be processed, but in April 2009, one year after Javian’s father’s death, they were able to formally found their organization.

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Initially they relied on information from social workers about which families had the greatest needs. Javian said, “Every little bit helps, because even a little assistance is more than these families could have ever dreamed of.”

When Harboring Hearts does not have the resources to help directly, it refers families to other organizations.

Up until the present, Harboring Hearts has been able to help around 250 families. Some of these were helped financially with housing. For example, Javian related, “a single mother and son were in New York, and the son needed heart surgery in Boston. We connected with the Sheraton Hotel owned by an Armenian family there, and got a discounted rate. Harboring Hearts paid for their stay for one week.” In New York it has also subsidized people’s rent. In all, it has donated $40,000 for rent and living expenses. Many of the families with members suffering from heart disease and needing help with housing are single mothers with children.

Harboring Hearts has organized community events in New York Presbyterian Hospital. At one event it provided more than 75 families with hot heart-healthy meals and care packages. Javian and others talked to each of the families and arranged a performance with a singer.

Another of Harboring Heart’s important functions is to connect families to others so that they can talk about their problems.

Although Harboring Hearts was helping on a case-to-case basis up until now, with its website and the greater press coverage that it is receiving, families have begun to contact it directly. Javian said, “We now need to figure out how much we can do and how much to help each family.”

The organization’s board of directors, which includes at least one fellow Armenian, Ryan Melkonian of Melkonian Capital Management, will be meeting to discuss the best way to expand operations. Javian says, “We hope as we expand to have our own facility where we can help over 60 families in a four- bedroom site in Manhattan.”

Javian is the only full-time employee at present, with Kotani working part-time as president of the board. Javian said, “I do a little bit of everything. My main objective is to raise awareness about our organization, and to continue fundraising and build partnerships. I’m taking things one step at a time.”

She relies on volunteers and interns to help with the growing workload. This was the first summer that Harboring Hearts had interns. It had several, including an Armenian named Nieri Avanessian. Avanessian came from Michigan to New York through the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s summer internship program.

Javian noted, “It was nice to connect with somebody who was also Armenian. My experience with having her work with me day in and day out over the past two months has been beneficial for both of us. She was an extremely hard worker, very dedicated and very bright.”

Avanessian in turn said, “The experience with an Armenian supervisor has been invaluable. Much of my work here has been outreach for sponsorship from other companies and organizations. Being able to access the Armenian network for this sort of thing has been immensely helpful, and a great, rewarding experience to see how excited Armenians are to help one another.”

All kinds of people have been supporting Harboring Hearts, but because of her personal background, Javian has received much inspiration from Armenians in her work. She said, “While growing up and going to Sunday school, I saw that the Armenian community as a whole was always about giving back. Mrs. Lynne Jamie, the principal at Holy Martyrs Sunday school, almost like an angel, was always helping others. She was an extremely big influence on who I am, along with my family. My father had a big heart, and discretely helped others. Many of my Armenian girlfriends have also been really supportive and helpful.”

Harboring Hearts is working hard to raise money for its work. Javian said, “We are diversifying how we raise money. When we started, it was the beginning of the recession. We get grants from foundations and individuals. We network — we are always on Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook, we raised $300 in one day when each person donated just one dollar.”

Special events are part of the fundraising arsenal Javian and her team employ. Most recently, on August 13 they organized a summer fete in a hotel in Southampton, NY (on Long Island) which more than 250 guests attended. Guests attending learned about the organization’s mission and participated in a live auction with prizes. The proceeds from the auction helped a single mother in Brooklyn who is waiting for a heart transplant and has had to stop working.

Harboring Hearts seems to have a big future ahead and no doubt, Armenians will continue to be among its great supporters. As Avanessian has written, “For such a wonderful organization as Harboring Hearts to have been developed by an Armenian- American should be a great source of pride to all Armenians everywhere. It shows that not only are Armenians correctly labeled as good business people, but that Armenians are generous, giving and warm-hearted.”

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