Scarsdale, NY, United States
Holding on tightly as our van driver navigated the hairpin turns of the road to Dilijan with ease, I watched my knuckles turn white as the pit of nervous excitement in my stomach began to grow.
Through Birthright Armenia I had obtained a placement with Armenia Tree Project (ATP), and it was my first day as a volunteer with ATP’s Environmental Education department… and I was already to give a presentation—that I had only finalized that morning—later that afternoon.
Anxiously, I glanced out the window, taking in the changing landscape. From the structure-abundant Yerevan, to open plains, to rolling hills, and finally, lush, autumn countryside once we entered the town of Margahovit, I watched as we drove on, unsure what to expect.
Looking back to that first day now, one month later, I chuckle at the apprehension I felt in that van. Once we had arrived at our first destination that day, the Michael and Virginia Ohanian Center for Environmental Studies, I immediately relaxed. Having spent most of my time in Yerevan, the crisp, mountain air of Margahovit was refreshing, and the soft rustling of leaves, accompanied by the quiet trilling of a stray bird, was a music I hadn’t heard in some time. As my co-worker, Gayane Margaryan, gave a presentation to a group of schoolchildren on climate change and sustainability, then led them through the Ohanian Center’s garden for hands-on demonstrations of sustainable living in action, I sat in the garden, surveying: the dancing sunshine on the mountains before us, the dappling of the trees in the shifting light, the buzzing and chattering of the children’s excited questions and observations, the rippling of the grass as a breeze swept by…
As I sat there that afternoon, a feeling of peacefulness swept over, as if assuring me that everything would turn out alright. And it has. Indeed, it has been more than alright. Working with ATP has been an incredibly worthwhile, exciting, and rewarding experience.
As someone passionate about the environment and its sustainable conservation, observing the environmental situation of Armenia has been somewhat of a paradox. It is a country profoundly abundant in nature, resources, and beauty. More importantly, it is home to a population of people who deeply care about their country and its preservation.
At the same time, there is a serious dearth of facilities, training, and education when it comes to certain environmental initiatives, particularly in the realms of proper waste management, disposal, and resource management. To see trash on the side of the road, in gorges, in valleys, and on riverbanks is not uncommon throughout Armenia. Though there are a few small organizations attempting to recycle, there are no recycling facilities in the country and trash disposal is limited to simply dumping collected waste in a landfill. In fact, in the regions where garbage collection is infrequent, it is not uncommon for trash to be simply tossed outside, or burned-- posing serious health and environmental risks to the surrounding ecology and people.
Thankfully, there are organizations, like Armenia Tree Project, who are attempting to tackle the issue. In only my one month of volunteering here, I have seen not only the dedication and hope of my co-workers as they run tirelessly from meeting to meeting, from location to location, and write from donor to donor and collaborator to collaborator, but I have witnessed real change take place within the communities we visit and educate. Students listen attentively during presentations and actively participate. They ask questions and are inspired and empowered to not only spread the information they learn within their communities, but to begin their own projects.
This was evident beginning my first day. The educational program run that day in Margahovit at the Ohanian Center for Environmental Studies is one held frequently by Armenia Tree Project. ATP provides transportation, a light lunch, and lessons to schoolchildren from all across Armenia, though its focus remains on students from more rural and remote communities whose educational programs are often underfunded. After a PowerPoint presentation, students are often given a tour of the Ohanian Center’s garden where they are introduced to various tree species and shrubs included in the Red Book (a book of endangered species in Armenia), as well as shown examples of sustainable living practices like composting and local vegetable cultivation. The overall goal of ATP’s environmental education program is promoting healthy, eco-friendly lifestyles among youth and adults through trainings and awareness-raising initiatives.
After the schoolchildren departed that day it was time for my presentation at the UWC Dilijan College. This presentation was part of a cooperative initiative between ATP and the UWC Dilijan College to promote environmental education and encourage environmental fluency. Indeed I was impressed with the attention and thoughtfulness of the students there. They were genuinely curious and interested in the topic (wildfires, their environmental impacts, and their connection to climate change) and asked many questions. It was exciting to see their inquisitiveness and interest as students discussed their own experiences and thoughts on the current state of practices regarding wildfire prevention and mitigation in Armenia and abroad.
If the UWC Dilijan students motivated me, our next stop of the day was even more inspiring. We followed up on an upcycling project begun at, and inspired by, one of ATP’s Eco Camps.
This past July, Armenia Tree Project partnered with Peace Corps volunteers to host five GROW with ATP Eco-Camps for over 190 children from five different towns in Armenia. There were environment/climate change-related trainings, along with hands-on lessons on waste management, littering, and up-cycling. Towards the end of the camps, campers split into groups and designed community service projects. The last day was a “Reflection Day,” during which campers reflected on how they could use the knowledge and skills gained during the camps in their respective communities. That day, the idea to upcycle old, worn cloth and clothing into eco-friendly tote bags to reduce the use of plastic bags, was born.
We met with a 13-year-old girl named Nvard who, along with the help of her grandmother, sister and a local community member, headed the tote bag upcycling initiative. She presented us with some examples of the bags she’d made, and spoke about the work she’d been doing; emphasizing the motivating effects it has had within her community.
It was incredible to see such tangible, positive changes taking place within the villages and schools that Armenia Tree Project has worked with. What was even more remarkable, however, was observing how these changes were being promoted by the younger generations.
Since that trip, Armenia Tree Project has continued its good work, and I have been consistently amazed and impressed with not only the tireless work that goes into making everything possible, but the enthusiasm and creativity team members show throughout the whole process. Just last week, for example, part of the Environmental Education team went to the Dilijan Community Center to give a presentation on ATP’s new Christmas Tree Initiative.
Each year, students at the Dilijan Community Center give a Christmas performance for their family, friends, and local community members. Last year, they were given pine trees from the ATP nursery for their performance, and then were engaged in the replanting of replacements for those trees during the planting season.
This year, ATP has decided to teach the students about “Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling” through “alternative” Christmas trees (essentially Christmas trees made out of recycled materials). These trees are being made by students from the Lori region in conjunction with ATP for the Dilijan Community Center’s Christmas performance. They will then be auctioned off. Look out for these trees on Armenia Tree Project’s Facebook page to purchase and support the education program!
ATP’s Nvard Gevorgyan gave a presentation to students at the Dilijan Community Center about this initiative, in conjunction with the topic of waste management, to drive the point home and draw connections between tangible ideas and ways anyone can help improve the state of the environment.
Overall, it has been an incredible experience volunteering with Armenia Tree Project. Every day I’m eager to come into work because I’m so excited to be part of an organization that is so effective in inspiring and enacting positive change within Armenia. I cannot wait to see what the rest of my time here will bring!