Ani Kurtyan and First Lady Anna Hakobyan cut the red ribbon

‘My Way’ Center for Autistic Children Celebrates Expansion

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YEREVAN — There had been plans and revisions, deadlines missed and newly defined. The second building of the My Way Socio-Rehabilitation Day Care Center for people with autism was to be reconstructed, its spacious classrooms and facilities would provide the framework for vocational education of young adults. Through training programs led by professionally qualified instructors and assistants, the students would acquire skills in a variety of fields, which would enable them to find meaningful employment and thus the means to carry out independent lives.

First Deputy Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Gemafin Gasparyan with student

The My Way initiative already has a functioning center in Yerevan for children with autism, and has operated with the help of financial support by public and private donors. Plans for reconstructing building number two began in 2017, and the organizers succeeded in lining up funds pledged from various quarters. As is so often the case in such endeavors, shortfalls occurred. Not only: the country went through a revolution in spring 2018, and the issue of government support was a big question mark. By the end of 2018, construction work came to a halt, as funds had run out. Private donors filled in the temporary gap, among them, the John Mirak Foundation. Creative fundraising efforts by the center’s leadership generated further contributions. Fortunately, a final gift from First Lady Anna Hakobyan’s My Step fund completed the task. On September 28, on the heels of Armenia’s national day, the new building was officially inaugurated.

The My Way leadership, as co-founder and board member Sona Petrosyan put it, had invited the whole world: in accordance with the charter of the Autism National Foundation, with which My Way is associated, that included government officials, from the Ministries of Health, Education and Social Affairs, as well as the Yerevan Municipality, who are members of the board; individuals and organizations, both local and foreign, that have ever supported My Way; those who worked specifically on the second building project, in whatever capacity, such as architects, constructors, furniture manufacturers as well as other partners from other schools and centers in Armenia. Ara Babloyan, the pioneer in addressing the autism problem in Armenia, who has a separate organization, was invited to speak. And a number of parents as well as students, who were to present flowers or certificates of appreciation.

A representative of Nune Sarkissian, the wife of President Armen Sarkissian, came in a non-official capacity and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, attended the event . Hakobyan appeared with Hovhannes Ghazaryan, the executive director of her own charitable fund, My Step. Due to the high level political participation, the event was covered by major press outlets on television and Internet.

Sona Petrosyan leads the tour with First Lady Anna Hakobyan.

Representatives of Hakobyan’s own fund had visited My Way and reported back on their positive impressions. Then Hakobyan herself visited the center and, supplied with the required documentation of its project plans and costs, decided to allocate resources from her fund to fill in the missing amount. That donation was crucial in ensuring that the entire renovation budget could be covered. With that, My Way was able to go ahead, complete the work and announce the inauguration.

This was a donation from her fund, not from the government. As Babloyan made the point in his speech, “The issues of people with autism are not the concern of a particular government, but a problem that pertains to the whole society, the whole country, the whole nation.”

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That said, the government was indeed represented. The First Deputy Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Gemafin Gasparyan attended and expressed his support, which augurs well for future relations.

Guests from Germany

One might add to Babloyan’s remarks that the autism issue pertains to the whole world. In fact, the impetus for establishing My Way in Armenia came from Germany. It was through the efforts of Maria Kaminski, mediated by Renate Beil, that a group of mothers of children with autism gained the knowledge, guidance and confidence to initiate a center in Yerevan (See https://mirrorspectator.com/2017/06/15/my-way-is-helping-children-with-autism-in-armenia/).

Kaminski (https://www.autismus.de/ueber-uns/struktur-des-bundesverbandes/vorstand-autistischer-beirat.html) is director of the German organization, Autismus, and founder of centers for autism throughout the country. She travelled to Yerevan to attend the inauguration, together with Martina Steinhaus, who is director of the Autismus Therapiezentrum und Werkstatt für Menschen mit Autismus (Autism therapy center and workshop for people with autism).

Steinhaus held a workshop the day prior to the inauguration for staff members of My Way and other centers. Attendants were excited with the workshop and found encouragement in Kaminski‘s assurances that My Way was on the right track; she stressed that in the long run it is society that reaps the benefits when it creates conditions for people with disabilities to contribute, to engage in meaningful employment, to enjoy the quality of life. This, she said, is the only productive way to deal with autism and other disabilities. The presence of the pioneer from Germany was appreciated not only as a personal gesture but also for the strategic message it sends to Armenia’s officialdom; Kaminski, who also had the opportunity to visit the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, is a foreign expert whose views and experience have won recognition and respect.

Ter Sepuh Chuljian and student Gagik

The Istanbul Diaspora

Topics: Autism, Education

Another key protagonist in the effort to renovate My Way’s second building is the Istanbul diaspora. In April, My Way presented an exhibition of art works by board members and students, which was hosted at the Karagezian Armenian School Hall (https://mirrorspectator.com/2019/06/06/artists-launch-creative-fundraising-in-istanbul/). Through the sale of art works, My Way succeeded in raising a very significant amount towards the renovation budget, leaving that last gap that Hakobyan’s fund then would fill.

Representing the Istanbul diaspora was Ani Kurtyan, who had been the inspiration behind the exhibition idea. Also present was Tania Panosoghlu and her husband Misak Panusoghlu, daughter and son-in-law of Hayk Arslanyan; all three had worked to make the Istanbul event a success.

In addition to Istanbul, Geneva and Vienna were also represented, by their Women’s Guilds, Suzy Sahakyan and Gamara Babayan, respectively.

The My Way building

Prayers, Thanks and Music

Prior to the inaugural event, participants gathered in the morning in church. The Head of the Gougark Diocese Bishop Ter Sepuh Chuljian presided over the service, and offered prayers for the deceased relatives of all those who had contributed to the center.

The official act of cutting the ribbon opened the inaugural ceremony; Ani Kurtyan and First Lady Anna Hakobyan did the honors. Kurtyan was the first speaker, and acknowledged all supporters, former and current, foreign and local, official and private. There followed speeches, music and the distribution of certificates of appreciation. Archbishop Sepuh Chuljian addressed the gathering and officially blessed the new building. Sona Petrosyan conducted a tour of the edifice, which was festively decorated with blue balloons and flowers. In the garden between the two buildings further remarks were delivered by co-founder and board member Hasmik Margaryan, as well as the mother of a former student who has since moved back to the US.

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