Ruzan Avagyan, head of Gyumri Children’s House, stands outside the fully equipped playground and expresses gratitude for UMCOR’s longstanding partnership and support.
Photo: Judith Santiago
“After putting His hands on them, He went on from them.” (Mathew 19:15)
Anahit Gasparyan, coordinator of UMCOR’s Nutrition Department in Armenia, led the days’ activities which included two home visits to survivors of trafficking, and a visit to Gyumri City, where UMCOR and the US Department of State support a cheese distribution program to a special-needs orphanage. Today, I will focus on my experience at the orphanage.
After a few hours of driving, and nearing Gyumri, you can see the aftereffects of a devastating earthquake which took the lives of some 20,000 people in 1988, according to Gasparyan. To this day, people live in makeshift shelters of tin, with no bathrooms or running water. Once known for its industrial capacity, textile business, and food industry services, Gyumri now faces high unemployment, with only a fraction of shops open for business.
We arrived at the orphanage and met with Ruzan Avagyan, head of Gyumri Children’s House. She invited us in for coffee and sweets, as she discussed the history of the orphanage. Later, Gasparyan, Izbella Simonyan, shelter manager for UMCOR’s Anti – Human Trafficking Program, and I joined Avagyan for a tour of the orphanage. We were not allowed to take photos and when I met these children, I understood why.
Many of the children were left behind by parents unable to support their child’s physical or emotional disabilities, or who could not handle the shame and social hardships associated with raising a special-needs child. These children had facial deformities, lost limbs, Down ’s syndrome, nervous disorders, and lost sight.
As we entered one room where the older children (3 - 4 years of age) resided, the children greeted us with a song. One lovely girl who had no hands and unusually large, light brown eyes caught my attention. As she sang with a smile, I bent down to greet her, held her wrist, and gave her a long warm embrace. Actually, I held her a few times. There was just something about her…
One boy observed my every move and then bursted out laughing. He was so funny that I joined him in laughter. Another child began to cry, while yet another sat quietly watching. One young boy just wanted to stay close to me. He kept touching me and reaching for my camera case which hung over my neck. One boy, who lost his eyesight, just kept on singing while the other children focused on us. He was the strong one, the independent one, who continued to sing and did not need assistance when we went down the stairs.
We also visited a “baby ward” that had about 16 beds. We held and touched babies. I prayed as I laid hands on them. I witnessed the healing power of touch that stopped a child from crying, turned the gaze of a child to something new, and saw the emotionally starved eat from every touch and every glance. I did not expect the impact this visit would have on me. I was greatly burdened for these children, while at the same time, I realized how precious they are in the sight of God. I did not want to leave them. I wanted to give them every ounce of love I could pour out. My arms and heart were open very wide. But for now, I did what Jesus did – I placed my hands on them before going on my way.
The orphanage currently serves 130 children with only a handful of nurse assistants to care for their physical and emotional needs. They are by far short-staffed, but, they say, they would not trade in their jobs for the world.
The orphanage is also highly dependent on in-kind contributions such as layette and hygiene kits that arrive from UMCOR’s Relief-Supply Network. UMCOR provides about 42 kilos of cheese per month — 20 grams of cheese each day — to help fortify their diets.
The orphanage is one of eight state-run institutions that UMCOR is supporting country-wide. The organization procures locally made cheese from producers and allocates the cheese to the elderly, boarding schools, special needs schools, retirement centers, and mental hospitals, with the goal to improve nutrition country-wide, as institutions are unable to provide this kind of support on their own due to inflation.
Avagyan shared that after the earthquake, several relief organizations came and went, but UMCOR has remained with them some 12 years. She shared her heartfelt gratitude for UMCOR’s longstanding support for these precious children.
Tomorrow, I visit the second nutritional program supported by UMCOR and Foods Resource Bank, called Fighting Hunger through Sustainable Livelihood Development Project. I will meet with beneficiaries and learn about another cheese program. Tomorrow evening we drive to Tblisi, Georgia, where the UMCOR Head of Mission will meet me by the Georgian border. I will learn of a distribution point at the Patriarchy Policlinic Boarding School and visit settlement of internally displaced persons (IDP) in Tbilisi.
*Judith Santiago is the media communications associate for UMCOR.