I came to Armenia eight months ago to be a Birthright volunteer. Moving to a new country in the middle of winter with a one-way ticket was exciting but also nerve-wracking. I was expecting an adventure but I had no idea just how life-changing it would be. At the core of my experience was Birthright Armenia, leading the way and making everything possible.
When I first arrived in Armenia, I was greeted by my host mom. She was so warm and welcoming. I immediately felt comforted and had a good feeling about the coming months. Then she introduced me to another Birthright volunteer staying with the host family across the hall- a young lady from America who would quickly turn into one of my closest friends. Together we went to orientation the next day to meet the other new volunteers and learn about the program. We were greeted by smiling faces in every corner of the Birthright office. There were new volunteers waiting to meet us, old volunteers who were extending their stay, and staff ready to answer our questions and address all concerns. Little did I know, these strangers from every part of the world eventually became my second family and support system.
The first month involved a lot of adjusting- learning a new public transportation system, being introduced to new jobsites, going on excursions to parts of Armenia I had never heard of, and most difficult of all, understanding the Eastern Armenian and Russian slang utilized in the daily vernacular. However, the Birthright staff helped me find my way and after a few weeks, I started to see Armenia through a different lens. I was no longer a tourist, I was living life like a local. I had to commute to work on the crowded Marshrutkas (minibusses) in the snow. I had to stand because there were no seats left, starting to sweat in my winter coat, hat, and gloves. Just when I would start to get frustrated, I would see people making room for the elderly to have a seat, strangers offering to hold my bags so I can be more comfortable, or getting change from other commuters so the driver doesn’t have to give away all his coins. I started to get an understanding of the daily life, both the struggles and the beauties, and I was becoming a member of this community.
Volunteering helped me become completely immersed in the Armenian culture and daily lifestyle. I was a newly licensed Occupational Therapist looking to gain more experience in pediatrics. Birthright helped find sites that matched my interests and skills, offering a couple different organizations to diversify my experience. My first site was My Way Educational and Rehabilitation Center, where I worked with other occupational therapists doing individual and group therapy for kids with Autism. The center was also collaborating with a public school in Yerevan to create the first Resource Classroom in the country in order to further inclusive education and provide a therapeutic space for children with disabilities. I helped design the sensory wall for this project, which challenged both my creativity and occupational therapy knowledge. Upon concluding this project, I started volunteering at Kharberd Specialized Children’s Home to once again work with children and adults with various physical and mental disabilities. This gave me exposure to the state level of care, and I was able to work with hippo-therapists, occupational therapists, and psychologists.
My main site was the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF). COAF had never had an Occupational Therapist (OT) before. Therefore, this gave me an opportunity to educate and advocate for my field through seminars and conferences. It was very exciting to pave the path and develop an OT program. In addition, I went to the rural villages to evaluate children with disabilities and worked individually with them in schools of developmental centers.
Now after eight months I am preparing to leave Armenia. I feel I have grown both as a professional and as a person. I have traveled to the most beautiful sites and gotten to know Armenia on a deeper level. I have met the most amazing people and made lifetime friends from around the world. I came with an empty book and now have a novel filled with memories. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter of my life brings me with the new skills and experiences I have acquired through Birthright Armenia. Thank you for everything, and I can’t wait to be back!