"You cannot create experience, you must undergo it."
Taking Albert Camus’ truism to heart, the Armenian Youth Federation has spent the last 75 years preparing generations of leaders, giving young Armenian-Americans the opportunity to gain real world experience through service to their communities.
Keeping with tradition, the organization’s Central Executive kicked off this fiscal year by hosting a day of lectures, workshops and seminars on leadership development.
The participants, newly elected executives from local AYF chapters throughout the Western US, spent the day learning a range of skills, strategies, and theories on organizational management, applying them at the end in scenario based exercises.
But the training seminar, though extensive, is only one of many opportunities AYF members have throughout the year to cultivate skills critical to success in personal, professional, academic and community life.
The responsibility of having to oversee a group of people working to complete "complex tasks" within set schedules comes with great rewards and many in the AYF quickly realize the benefits that come with the long hours of work they regularly put into the organization, according to Sevag Jierian, the chairperson of the AYF’s Fresno chapter.
"Recognizing that things depend on you and rising to that task, has taught me how to be a leader, mentor and collaborator–traits one often needs to successfully manage a business, or any undertaking for that matter," he explained.
For the last few years, Vache Thomassian has been learning just that. As the editor of the organization’s quarterly publication, Haytoug, he has been responsible for everything expected from a professional magazine editor, working with a volunteer team to finance and produce a magazine that reaches tens of thousands of Armenia’s worldwide.
"For over 30 years AYF members have written for, designed, published and distributed the magazine," he explained, talking about some of the challenges he faced trying to grow the magazine. "When I was given the opportunity, we essentially had to reinvent the wheel and create a new and sustainable infrastructure for finding and managing talent for the magazine."
Vache, who is currently the Chairman of the AYF, described the job as an honor, noting the leap in his personal and professional growth while "learning how to delegate, organize and manage the functions of a publication."
"I remember the first issue of Haytoug I worked on was dedicated to examining the dire situation of the Armenians of Javakhk," he said, recalling his first project as the editor. "While working on that issue I had the opportunity to interview many experts and intellectuals, locally and internationally. That experience taught me how to research effectively, setting the stage, not only, for my future work with the magazine but also in my personal and academic life as well."
Carnie Armenian concurred, referring to her own experience helping to establish the AYF’s newest chapter in Las Vegas. As the chapter’s first chairperson, she is responsible for not only building its foundations, but also raising awareness about the organization in the community, doing outreach and getting people involved with the chapter.
"My responsibilities are endless," she said. "But so are the benefits."
For Levon Abrahamian, the AYF has been testing ground to develop leadership skills he always had but never explored. Currently the chairman of the AYF’s Central Fundraising Committee, Levon joined the organization to "make a difference in the community, to help it progress in any way he can."
"Being involved in planning some of the major events the AYF organizes has inspired me to go beyond the bare minimum, to always strive to do better than what’s expected and get the job done," he said, describing the "profound working habits and time management skills" he has developed as a result of his involvement.
No other organization or workplace environment gives its members as much freedom to explore and unearth hidden talents as the AYF does, Sevag Jierian noted, pointing to the many campaigns and projects he’s helped organize over the years.
Sevag’s chapter hosted this year’s annual AYF Olympics, a massive three day sports tournament and reunion celebration for the organization. Every year responsibility for organizing Olympics passes to a different chapter, giving its members an opportunity to put into motion their ideas for the event.
If the chapter rises to the challenge, the event easily becomes a phenomenally good time, as well as a fundraiser. As his chapter’s chairperson, Sevag, oversaw the efforts to organize the project and its various subsidiary elemen’s.
Another major initiative organized by the organization is an Alumni reunion hosted by the AYF’s Montebello chapter. This year was the 50th anniversary of the chapter and its chapter chairman, Zaven Altounian, oversaw a team who "worked on everything from conceptual planning to the final execution of the event," which is the chapter’s primary means to fund its yearly activities.
"I have learned to work on budgets and having to pick and choose different items for the event in order to stay within strict parameters in order to maintain the profitability, viability and ultimate success of the event," he said.
Montebello’s leadership, early on, recognized the strategic importance of long term planning, developing their reunion into a primary fundraising mechanism that would cultivate donors and patrons for the chapter, Zaven explained. "It’s vital that we create strong and lasting connections with our Alumni."
The reunion has been a powerful tool for showing the community that it has a vested interest in the chapter, he added. "I’ve learned that this is pivotal to the success of any non-profit."
Leadership requires vision and the AYF is a place to learn how to think outside the box, according to Sose Thomassian, the chairperson of the Orange County AYF.
"Motivating people to approach new challenges in innovative ways, requires an unconventional perspective, and the AYF brings out that creative problem solver in you," she said.
Sose is also the director of the AYF’s Youth Corps Program, which is one of the organizations most successful ongoing projects.
Having first occupied itself with small scale projects rebuilding damaged structures in Karabakh, Youth Corps took a bold and unprecedented step last year and opened what the AYF hopes to be a permanent summer camp for underprivileged youth in Gyumri.
Sending a team of 7 young Armenia’s to Gyumri to manage a summer day camp for hundreds of children was completely new to the AYF and it "needed serious planning and bold creativity," she explained, adding that "the program required a solid vision if it was to be successful and lasting."
The AYF is a chance to take hold of responsibility, to take on challenges, and make ideas happen, many in the organization often realize after completing their first fundraiser, or large scale event.
For some members a chance at leadership is why they joined the AYF. For others, the AYF helped them see a side of themselves they didn’t know existed.
"Being thrust into situations that require you to adapt to new circumstances changes people, and builds their capabilities," said Hasmig Karkouzian, the chairperson of the South Bay AYF.
Having to constantly take on new roles and responsibilities teaches you how to manage a diverse array of projects, she said. "I have been a project manager, supervisor, event planner, researcher, cook, promoter, negotiator, mentor, hostess, accountant, secretary, communicator, and educator."
Being involved provides you with a place to grow, agreed Saro Haroun, a former treasurer for the Crescenta Valley AYF, who described how his character had been shaped by the various responsibilities placed on his shoulders over the years.
Saro was the chair the organization’s Central Educational Committee last year, overseeing the curriculum of over 500 members throughout the entire organization. That responsibility is "extremely empowering," he exclaimed, stressing how his experiences in the organization shaped his trust in himself.
Membership in the AYF, in and of itself, is a remarkable opportunity for Armenian youth to develop their character, to become confident and responsible trail-blazers in anything they take on, commented the organization’s Vice Chairman, Berj Parseghian.
Two year’s ago Berj served as the AYF’s treasurer. He explained how the responsibility of having to "manage the organization’s books, budget money, and spend wisely" taught him skills he never thought he would learn. "Being in such a critical position taught me how to run a large organization, and how to achieve something greater than myself."
"Youth today are rarely given the kind of responsibility and level of freedom that the AYF provides," Vache explained, noting the AYF’s unique role in the community. “It brings youth together to volunteer for the betterment of our communities, and Armenia, while also helping them become better individuals, capable of leading our people into the future.”
Responsibility inspires leadership, he stressed.