From an article in The Armenian Weekly
WATERTOWN, Mass.—The decorative fountains of Armenia have longed served a dual role in the infrastructure of this historic land.
In addition to beguiling tourists each year, they’ve continuously attracted frolicking youngsters to their midst—under what may be considered unkempt and unsanitary conditions.
On a hot summer’s day, children throughout Armenia are taking the plunge in these fountains for lack of better recreational facilities, when not being evicted by local police.
Youngsters take the plunge in an unsanitary fountain in Yerevan.
But help is on the way through the efforts of a newly formed organization named Aquatics Armenia.
Thanks to a group of concerned Greater Boston Armenians, the push is on to provide between three to five fully fledged aquatics centers throughout the country, the first of which will be constructed just outside of Yerevan in the community of Nor Nork.
Each pool will eventually become self-sustaining with its own board of governors and finance mechanism in place.
The ambitious project has been gaining impetus since 2005 and began steamrolling two years ago.
An acre of prime land in this heavily populated section of the country has already been settled with construction set to begin once paperwork and preliminary details are negotiated.
It’s the vision of Garo Lachinian, a former press photographer-turned-missionary who deems this “pool project” a necessity—one that will enrich the community and provide sustenance to its growing population, especially in terms of quality of life.
On a searing mid-summer’s day, young boys seek relief from the heat in the public fountain in Republic Square in downtown Yerevan.
“For people of limited means in Armenia, this project aims to provide an escape from the summer’s hot, dry, and dusty climate by creating an oasis for fun, for fitness, and for families,” said the 46-year-old Watertown resident.
“During the hot summers, most of Armenia’s children lack access to safe and supervised recreation,” he added.
“Many try to cool off in unhygienic areas such as polluted rivers and public fountains. With the increased privatization of public spaces, children also lack clean and safe playgrounds to stay active.”
The idea came to Lachinian five years ago during a photo assignment in Armenia commissioned by the Armenian Tree Project. While driving through Republic Square, he saw youngsters splashing inside the public fountain and found it disconcerting.
“At a time when Armenia was making a big push to promote tourism, that just seemed out of place to me,” he recalled. “It was clear to me these kids were swimming in a space that wasn’t designed for that purpose.”
A further inquiry with a friend revealed the unthinkable: “There are no public community pools in Armenia,” he was told.
With old, Soviet-built pools crumbling and public fountains stagnant with bacteria-laden water, the alternative approach would have to be private pools with clean, filtered water, trained lifeguards, swimming lessons for one and all, and fully handicapped accessible—recreational equity for Armenia’s communities, one facility at a time.
After confirming there were no community pools for people with limited means, Lachinian set the wheels into motion. He organized a committee and began laying out the groundwork. As for capital, his godfather (Berdj Medjelian) was so moved by reports of the deprivation of youth activity in Armenia that he offered $100,000 as seed money.
Dangerous waters in Yerevan will soon give way to public swimming pools, thanks to Aquatics Armenia, based in Watertown.
Today, Aquatics Armenia has an executive director on board named Lenna (Garibian) Kaligian, a Belmont resident with an economics degree from UMass-Amherst, who left her marketing role in private business for the non-profit sector.
The staff also includes Arman Arakelyan, the organization’s country director based in Yerevan, together with a five-member board of directors headed by Lachinian, who spent 20-plus years in the newspaper industry as an award-winning photojournalist.
Today, he devotes his time to his family and his passion as evidenced by 11 trips to Armenia in an effort to realize his dream.
“There are many private pools in Armenia,” Kaligian pointed out. “Unfortunately, they are very costly for locals. You’ll find them in private clubs and hotels, not in the public sector. There happens to be a noticeable lack of appropriate space for recreation and we aim to do something to fill that void.”
Two separate advisory boards, one here and the other in Armenia, have the endorsement of such individuals as Rev. Dajad Davidian, the former pastor at St. James Church in Watertown (now living in Armenia), and Massachusetts State Rep. Peter Koutoujian, along with Jirair Haratunian, former board chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America.
Police arrive to evict youngsters from an unhygienic fountain, as much for their own protection as for the presumed eyesore they pose at the height of the tourist season. (Photos courtesy of Photolure)
The organization’s newest board member, Tsoleen Sarian, has a background in YMCA work and sees the good this project can do for Armenia in the long run.
“It’s something that bears substance, not just a diasporan project,” she agrees. “The ripples from this aquatics project will extend throughout Armenia and have a positive impact upon the population.”
The design of the aquatics centers will be dictated by available land in the outlying regions. They will come equipped with playgrounds, green spaces for family gatherings, formal swim lessons, lifeguards, trainers, coaches, and competitive teams.
A feasibility study showed Nor Nork as the ideal pilot community, on the western edge of Yerevan’s city limits, on land donated by the municipal government. A satellite view of the location shows a densely populated area marked by a number of adjacent buildings and home fronts. Davit Petrosyan, the “mayor” of Nor Nork, is said to be bubbling with excitement over the plan.
The swimming pool will be joined by a smaller wading pool for toddlers, a playground and picnic area, concession stand, offices, first aid station, family changing rooms, benches, and shade areas.
“Studies show that active children achieve higher grades and are less likely to smoke and abuse drugs and alcohol,” Kaligian added. “In the United States and Canada, access to community recreation programs has been linked to reduced crime rates. A clean, supervised swimming pool brings all the benefits of recreational activity to Armenia’s politically maturing, economically depressed communities.”
Through athletics, programming, and public health-focused alliances, the facility will also function as a health promotion center encouraging good nutrition, regular exercise, and smoking cessation whereby stronger families will become compatible to stronger communities.
The activity bodes well with insiders like Marieta Basilisian, leading specialist for the Ministry of Health in Armenia. “It is strictly prohibited to swim in decorative pools and fountains because people wash their dogs in those places late at night despite our prohibitions,” she says. “It’s not hard to guess what can happen with a child who swims in the same place that very next day.”
According to Sergey Karapetian, the head of the sanitary hygienic department of the Center of Disease Control in Yerevan, 19 filtering stations inside the city can clean the rivers and lakes only from pollution.
“Decorative pools are not disinfected at all,” he confirms. “The only way to prevent the infections is to spread the information. But not everybody follows the news.”
While the pool project wasn’t meant to solve an economic crisis in Armenia, it does represent a model for recreational standards that should improve the quality of life. Lachinian sees it as a boost to employment and a heavy shift toward enriching health standards.
“The best way to rehabilitate a country is to start with the youth,” he maintains. “The feedback has been positive. What we have here is the genesis for a competitive aquatics program in Armenia. We also intend to partner with other agencies related to health and hygiene, and drug and domestic abuse intervention.”
A capital campaign is being launched in the spring to raise $1.5 million for the first phase of the project. In addition to individual donations, the group will reach out to the private sector. Contributions may be sent to Aquatics Armenia, P.O. Box 965, Watertown, MA 02471.
“I close my eyes and can hear the kids in Armenia chirping and laughing in the water,” said Lachinian. “That’s what keeps me motivated. It’s music to my ears.”