Edward Avedisian Offers Hope to Poorest Children of Armenia


By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

LEXINGTON, Mass. — For Edward Avedisian, education is the key to the future of Armenia and that is why he is helping children there.
Avedisian, who retired eight years ago as a clarinetist with the Boston Pops after 35 years and spent 43 seasons with the Boston Ballet Orchestra, is focusing on the education of the poorest children in Armenia. He founded the Koren and Shooshanig Avedisian K-12 School in the Malatia-Sebastia portion of Yerevan, a neighborhood so poor that it is commonly known as “Bangladesh.”

Avedisian recalled his decision to delve into the world of music as a boy. “The credit — or blame — goes to Aram Chobanian who was our next-door neighbor,” he recalled in a recent interview. He was a few years older than Avedisian and a contemporary of his older brother. “Aram played the clarinet. He was like the pace car. My older brother followed him” and then gave it up, only for the younger Avedisian to pick it up.
Avedisian recalled working with many Pops conductors, including the late Arthur Fiedler, John Williams and Keith Lockhart, feeling especially proud to do so on the traditional Armenian Night at Pops every June. He said he felt the most kinship with Fiedler.

“I had a wonderful career,” he recalled, singling out his delight in performing with the late soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland, and the late tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.

In addition to performing, he has taught at Boston University and Endicott College.

After leaving the world of music, Avedisian took his savings and his pension and decided to invest them. He read up on the market and invested carefully.

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“I never went to formal business school, and don’t have an MBA,” he said. The lack of a business degree did not hamper his investment skills. “I did fairly well. I’m not complaining,” he said.

Avedisian turned to Armenia when he started looking for a project as a tribute to his mother. “My mother celebrated her 90th birthday in 1994. It was the occasion for a party. She said, ‘I don’t need a coat or a hat or a bag,’ the usual. But we had to do something. We were having more than 100 people, people she hadn’t seen for 40-50 years.”

Instead of a hat, coat or bag, he and his then-fiancée (and now wife) Pamela decided on supporting a school in Armenia. The money they raised at the party became the seed money for the Koren and Shooshanig Avedisian School, which he is supporting through the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA). He recalled that his associates, who were scouting a school for him to support, came back to him and said the only one they could find was in the poorest section of Yerevan, Malatia-Sepastia. “I said that’s exactly what we want,” Avedisian said.

He recalled that his mother had grown up in a German missionary orphanage in Kharpert. She had been found as a young girl and had been living and studying there. As if a miracle, one day her mother, almost beaten to death, came to the door of orphanage and was rescued. (The resident doctor there, incidentally, was the father of the late Genocide documentarian, Dr. J. Michael Hagopian.) He was able to save Avedisian’s grandmother, and thus, his mother was brought up in the Protestant tradition and eventually when she arrived in the US, supported the work of the AMAA.

The pre-school/kindergarten in Yerevan was in a building so decrepit that the city had closed it down. Avedisian, through the AMAA leased the building for 99 years. Work started on the building to make it safer, as well as bigger. The first year that Avedisian started at the school, in 1999, the school had 75 students.

“Things in Armenia take more time,” he said. “Once everything was settled, we knew where we were going to be. There was no ‘cement’ in the cement. Refurbishment was out of the realm of possibility.”
Still, he and his team worked with this unworkable building, adding a grade every year since 1999. “We’ve got all the way to ninth grade now,” he noted, with 300 students.

Now, the Avedisian School is not just functioning; it is one of the top schools in the country. “The Education Ministry [officials] came by to check the school out. They said this is the best-run school in Armenia and gave us a gold medal.” The award, he said, is given every five years to a deserving school.

In fact, students from the school have won national prizes in French and Russian for several years. “They came back with the first place medal for two years and the French team won first price this year. The math and science levels are also very, very high.”

“The principal, Melanie Geghamian, is unbelievable,” Avedisian said.
Now the school is growing out of the building and Avedisian is building a new school about a half-mile away to house students from pre-school to 12th grade. “The school is free for the kids and we accept the poorest of kids. We investigate to make sure that they are deserving.”

The new building is going to be LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environment Development] Certified and built up to every code there. “You’re going to get the safest building in Armenia against earthquakes,” he said, and it will use solar and wind energy systems. In addition, smart choices, such as making many of the classrooms face the southwest and thus warmer, all will save money. In addition, land will be dedicated to farming so that the school can grow its own crops.

Avedisian wants to help reach the goal of $10 million for the school, which will include not only the construction of the state-of-the-art building, but also an endowment.

The drawings are complete and the groundbreaking will take place in June and the building is expected to be complete by 2014.

With the blessing of Rakel Dink, the widow of slain journalist Hrant Dink, the school will have a fully digitized library and research center dedicated to him. About $5 million remains of the goal.

Much of the credit for the stellar results of the school, in addition to Geghamian, goes to the teachers, he said. He praised their attitude and their dedication. Often in Armenia, students need to pay teachers to get high marks, whether they have earned them or not. The teachers, he said, are paid so poorly, that they view selling grades as the only way to supplement their incomes. “We pay them a little more. The teacher needs to get the child up to speed with no [extra] money,” he said.
With the students from such impoverished backgrounds, the school tries to give them more than an education. For example, dental care in Armenia, Avedisian said, is among the worst in the world, with parents not able to spend money on toothbrushes or toothpaste, and frankly often unaware of oral hygiene themselves. Students at the Avedisian school get toothbrushes and are taught how to brush their teeth with salt if they don’t have toothpaste.

Avedisian also is a trustee of the American University of Armenia (AUA), with close ties to its president, Dr. Bruce Boghosian. In fact, he was the lead sponsor of the new Paramaz Avedisian Building on the AUA campus, and was on the search committee for the AUA president position.

Avedisian hopes that once the Avedisian School reaches the 12th grade, the AUA will offer an undergraduate program, as Boghosian hopes, so that children will be able to receive the best possible schooling from pre-school through graduate school, “all without paying a nickel.”

“He is doing a wonderful job,” he said of Boghosian. “Bruce has gone out full blast. This is not the same place it was two years ago.”
In addition to the AUA, Avedisian said that the school in Armenia has “synergy” with other organizations such as the Armenia Tree Project and the Armenian Eyecare Project (AECP). He recalled the story of one little girl at the school who was born cross-eyed. The child’s family is impoverished, with the father having left for Russia, ostensibly for work, but having never sent money. The girl, her mother, brother and grandmother all lived on the miniscule pension of the grandmother. The family clearly had no money to deal with this easily fixable yet expensive condition. The principal approached Avedisian for help and he in turn asked the AECP people for help, which they offered readily. The girl, who had an operation in June, has perfectly aligned eyes and is one the top students in her class. He praised Dr. Roger Ohanesian, the founder of AECP, saying “he does great work. He is a go-to guy.”

He offered words of hope for the future of Armenia. “Our people are our best export,” he said, unfortunately, noting that they have no choice but to leave if they have no work. He invited everyone to come to Armenia, see what each can do and help. “There are no reasons and no excuses” for Armenia not to move ahead.

“We want to give the teachers and the students a chance. Pay them a living wage and for the kids, this is their ticket out,” he said. “Armenian kids have got the genes for learning. There is no limit to what can happen there.”

Anyone interested in making donations to the school can send a check to the Armenian Missionary Association of America, 31 W. Century Road, Paramus, NJ 07652 or visit http://www.amaa.org/together/avedisianschool.html.

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