In 2010, the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) will celebrate its centennial anniversary. This is a milestone for any organization. Established in 1910, the ARS has been at the forefront in providing emergency and long-term assistance to Armenia’s worldwide, in the homeland (Armenia, Artsakh, and Javakhk), and throughout the Diaspora.
Central to the mission of the ARS is its historic commitment to the children. In the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, the ARS realized that hundreds of young girls and boys had been orphaned along the route of the death march to the desert region of Der Zor. Many of these children were taken by the tribe’s people or villagers along the route or were given to them in desperation by dying parents. Although they were saved from death, they would be bound in servitude to their new families. During the period from 1922-26, the Armenian Red Cross, the predecessor of the ARS, was involved in the resettlement of displaced Armenia’s to safer havens and in providing for the many Armenian orphans. At their Convention in July 1926, which was held in Boston, the Central Executive Board (CEB) was instructed by the delegates to secure the freedom of these young girls and boys who were being held in servitude. Thus was born the innovative “One Orphan for One Gold Coin” program that successfully liberated hundreds of these children from their Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab families. Since that beginning, the ARS has continued with many projects and programs that address the specific needs of our young children in the homeland and throughout the diaspora.
In Artsakh, the ARS has established the “Soseh” Kindergarten System. Presently the 12 mangabardezes (kindergartens) enroll approximately 550 children 3 to 6 years of age with a staff of 111 employees. The ARS through its 218 chapters worldwide in 24 countries and its many friends underwrites the full cost of these schools. (See the Armenian Weekly, Feb. 2, 2008, “The ARS %u218Soseh’ Kindergartens in Artsakh.”)
In a parallel project that many in the ARS feel is the crown jewel of their many programs and projects is the ARS Mother and Child Clinic and Birthing Center in Akhourian, Armenia, which addresses the Society’s commitment to young children. Following the devastating earthquake in December 1988, the Executive Committee of the ARS Eastern Region U.S. made a momentous decision: to build a health center in the town of Akhourian in the Shirak Marz or district of Armenia. Akhourian was a small town with an estimated population of some 10,000 people about three miles southeast of Gyumri, the district capital. The plan was to build a medical facility that would serve a cluster of six villages with an estimated population of 22,000. The following year, the ARS CEB decided to assume financial responsibility for this Mother and Child Health Clinic.
The villages within this medical service area were Arevik, Aigabats, Garnut, Hovit, Jrarat, and Musaelian. The furthest villages from the new medical facility were Jrarat, about 8.5 miles away–measured as the crow flies–and Aigabats, about 6 miles away. Although these are not great distances, it must be remembered that the winding roads within the district increased the mileage that had to be traveled and due to changing weather conditions could quickly become impassable at times. Also, many of these families did not have reliable means of transportation to reach the larger existing hospital in Gyumri, which was another three miles distant, or the financial means to afford medical services when it was necessary.
The villages to be served were on the margins of the earthquake zone which was centered to the northeast of Gyumri on the town of Spitak, which was completely leveled. The city of Gyumri itself sustained considerable damage as well. The Akhourian region, which had limited access to medical facilities prior to the earthquake, was now virtually without any medical assistance as the needs of the thousands of earthquake victims had to be given top priority.
Given the limited income of the villagers, the decision was made to operate the hospital on a non-profit basis to provide free medical care. Construction of the Mother and Child Clinic met government standards since it was to be the first privately run medical facility in Armenia to be licensed by the Ministry of Health.
The clinic received its first patient in May 1997. It soon became apparent that there was a need to expand the range of services available if there was to be any significant improvement in the overall health of the population. It was estimated that about 50 percent of the women in the district were also in their childbearing years. Few of these women had ever had the opportunity to receive either pre-natal or post-natal information or care.
With this in mind, the ARS decided that a birthing center should be constructed to be attached to the Mother and Child Clinic. This would provide the people of the Akhourian district with a full-service general hospital. Plans were drawn up to add approximately 7,200 square feet to the existing clinic. Construction began in September 2003. When completed, the combined Mother and Child Clinic and Birthing Center had more than 13,000 square feet of space. On April 24, 2005, the first baby, a boy named Vrej, was born.
The Mother and Child Clinic and Birthing Center in Akhourian has been responsible for a significant reduction in the infant mortality rate including miscarriages and still-births. The number of babies born with medical problems has also shown a significant decrease. The reputation of the staff, the up-to-date technology, and the modern facilities available have been responsible for the geographic expansion of the facility’s service area into the southern region of the Shirak Marz, with the population being served more than doubling from 22,000 to over 50,000.
The hospital currently provides a full range of diagnostic services including mammography and sonography units and blood work-ups. Gynecological, pediatric, and pre-natal and post-natal examination and care is also available. The hospital maintains an emergency unit and a pharmacy to dispense vital prescription drugs which would not otherwise be easily available to the patient. In 2004, the ARS reported that the staff of the Clinic and Birthing Center and the University of Massachusetts Medical Center’s HIV clinic “;began cooperating in a study of preventive measures against sexually transmitted diseases and HIV;” For many families this was their first formal introduction to the dangers of HIV to the prospective mother and the baby. The Clinic and Birthing Center is also carrying out a comprehensive inoculation program against early childhood illnesses.
Data for the four-year period, 2002 to 2005, indicates that nearly 17,000 visits were logged by nearly 10,600 patients. The medical staff made 1,299 house calls during this same period. From June 2002 to August 2005, 24,316 laboratory analyses were completed. Perhaps the most important fact is that since April 24, 2005, when the first birth was recorded, 3,135 healthy babies have been delivered as of May 2008 without cost to their parents. That is an average of nearly 87 healthy births each month. The ARS assumes financial responsibility for the entire operation of the center.
To expand needed medical services to an ever-increasing population and to continue its policy of not charging for the services provided by the “Birthing Center,” the ARS introduced the “Healthy Birth Sponsorship Program.” Under this program a donation of $150 covers the medical expenses of the mother and provides a healthy start in life to a baby born at the center.
Presently, the ARS Mother and Child Clinic and Birthing Center in Akhourian has a medical staff of 41 professionals, which includes 4 pediatricians, 4 gynecologists, 18 nurses, 11 mid-wives, and 4 laboratory technicians assisted by a support staff of 9 people. The success enjoyed by the hospital is due to the diagnostic skill and care that the professional staff provides. However, credit must be given to the hospital administrator and the three directors who have responsibility for administrative, medical, and support functions respectively.
Since its opening in 1997 and its expansion in 2005, the ARS Mother and Child Clinic and Birthing Center in Akhourian has made significant contributions to the improvement in the general health of the population. This has had a beneficial effect on the families. The birth of a healthy child eliminates the tension and the worry that would engulf the parents of a baby born with medical problems or worse, should a miscarriage or a still-birth occur. During the pre-natal period, the mother is able to receive the necessary information and care that reduces possible complications and anxieties and makes for a safe and successful birth. Post-natal information and check-ups reduce the stress on the new mother and contributes to the development of a healthy child.
Society is a beneficiary as well. Preventive medicine is invariably less expensive and more rewarding than curative procedures whenever that option is available. A healthy family unit is happier and more productive.
The ARS’s commitment to our children has always been central to its mission. The ARS Mother and Child Clinic and Birthing Center provides for their needs at birth. The ARS “Soseh” Kindergarten System in Artsakh provides another group of Armenian youngsters the opportunity to develop their young bodies and minds. Whether in Shirak Marz or in Artsakh, the ARS remains committed to its historic role with respect to our children who are the future of Armenia.