“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb
BY PUZANT BERBERIAN
I often get questions like, “Why should I join AYF?,” “What’s so special about it?,” and “How can the AYF help me?” I figured, instead of giving the basic answers like, “a sense of community,” and “a vast amount of resources to achieve your goals,” I would get more specific and show how one of our many programs got started.
The Pyunik Basketball Program was started in 2013. This special needs basketball program was launched with the help of the Armenian Autism Outreach Project in an effort to create a safe space for children with special needs to experience and find their place in our community, an opportunity that everyone deserves. This program is impacting the lives of 50 Armenian kids who otherwise had been marginalized by the community. What’s most inspirational is that this initiative was organized by the youth: members in their teens and early twenties.
To give more insight, I want to outline the basketball program and how one idea changed the lives of so many. In 2013, during a San Fernando Valley “Sardarabad” chapter meeting, Serop Chalian, who hadn’t been able to come to many meetings because he had moved away for school, expressed that he had an idea to start a special needs basketball program. The exact words, if I remember correctly, were, “I’m going to do this, but it would be great if we could do this together [as an AYF Chapter].” Everyone at the meeting was excited about the idea and some of us even wondered why something like this hadn’t been done in the past. We started the program with the help and coordination of the AAOC. We allocated a few hundred dollars from our chapter account for equipment, balls, cones, and other supplies. We also spoke to the Holy Martyrs Ferrahian High School administration to reserve the gymnasium and held a coach’s clinic during our next meeting. The rest is history.
Within a few months, we had a functional, fully volunteer based, bi-weekly basketball program for Armenian-American athletes with special needs. We never advertised, but almost every practice we had more kids than the last. Serop was able to facilitate the program, until he had to move away again. Naturally, however, many younger members took charge and continued the program with the same commitment.
The goal of the program was to create awareness and a safe space, where kids with special needs would be able to experience the thrill of playing basketball while building motor skills and bonding with members of the Armenian Community. We were successful in our goal. In fact, I think the program exceeded our expectations. I can recall a number of practices that left our coaches stunned by the number of athletes who participated. At times, we contemplated whether or not the program was getting too big for us to handle, but we kept going. In 2018, through the awareness that was created by the Pyunik program and the AAOC, Homenetmen, the largest Armenian athletic organization in the world, created its first chapter for kids with special needs. Shortly after, in 2019, the AYF Pyunik program and Homenetmen Hrashq joined forces.
I’ve been lucky enough to be an AYF member for the past decade and see programs like this take shape. The experiences I’ve had in this organization have truly changed my life. The strength of the AYF doesn’t come from one person or leader, but rather the efforts of the collective. I really hope you’d consider joining, too, because we need your ideas, help, and support.
Well done on multiple levels, including writing about it. I am embarrassed to say, I had no clue.