Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Time Flies When You're Working Like Crazy!

The last blog posted was some months ago, in the depths of winter in Yerevan.  That seems like light years ago.  So just to catch us up to speed, hold on tight, it's going to be a long one!

The dolls of Talin Women's Resource Center Foundation are taking off!  Four months of 'no, sorry, not good enough, body too skinny, head too big, eyes too far apart, it doesn't stand properly, please do it again' have resulted in a fabulous series of dolls from the Armenian communities of Khotorjour, Vasourakan, Sebastia, Moush, and others.  In all, we hope to create a series of at least a dozen women and their male counterparts, each of them bearing information about how many Armenians lived there, what their main areas of work was, etc.  Already, the Armenian National Gallery and Khor Virap Church have shown interest in having these in their souvenir shops.

This week the Talin Women's Resource Center Foundation has been officially registered.  Their goal will be to spread information on issues of child health, nutrition, hygiene and other issues concerning the women of  Talin. Already they have meet with Mission East and a Finnish organization that focus on disabled children.  The future looks bright in Talin, thanks to Gayane Khachatryan and Peace Corps volunteer Brian Bokhart, both mentioned in an earlier blog here.

And then there is the Berd Bears from Berd Women's Resource Center Foundation!  Taking off in a spectacular way on Kickstarter, we surpassed our contribution budget in only about 30 hours after it was launched.  Exciting times in Berd!

Also focused in Berd and the Shamshadin region where it is located is a new initiative that we are calling the Shamshadin Development Initiative.  The whole idea is to launch a whole series of projects that together will lift the Shamshadin region up a few notches economically and thereby give that region more jobs, more activity, more optimisme.  So far, dozens of individuals and organizations have shown interest and are actively participating.  Not wanting to delve too much into details here, be sure to follow the Homeland Handicrafts page on Facebook.

And always new, interesting little crocheted animals coming out of the Goris Women's Resource Center Foundation.  These sea creatures were requested by a client marketing them in Dubai.  Also a Norwegian client has ordered hundreds of the 50 or so different animals made by these hard-working women.  Presently, we are working on getting one of Armenia's largest milk product producers to market the cute little cow made by them.  The list of possibilities for these animals is long, very long, and the orders keep coming in.

The women in Vardenis are very busy churning out quantities of their sewn products, which have been selling smoothly since their launch in February.  The challenge there has been finding enough fabric to keep up with the demand.  The sky fabric on this one, for example is nowhere to be found in Yerevan, as is the striped material used as a background on the pomegranate series.  Still, the baby blankets in both wool and satin with the same Ararat theme on them are flying off the shelf.  We are happy and glad for the ladies in Vardenis!

And in Gyumri, there has been great success with baby booties made of hand made felt.  What a tedious, difficult process making felt is!  Hours and hours of hands in soapy water, getting the fibers to entwine and hold together.  A small shipment has already gone to the U.S., and more orders have come in here in Armenia.  I am so happy that we discovered the Shirak Diocese Social Educational Center, thanks to Peace Corps Volunteer John Kelly.  These products have a bright future, as items for babies are hard to find in Armenia.

Chinchin, our lovely Chinchin!  Hasmik there is busy at work making the second of these gorgeous Armenian alphabet bedspreads in a month.  And little does she know that there is a third one in the pipeline. This is an intensive piece of work, taking three solid weeks to make.  A massive 2,4 meters square, I have one that I have been using for over 10 years, and am in love with.  I took it up to Chinchin a couple months back and asked her to reproduce it.  Imagine, an order for 15 of these or so would keep her busy for an entire year!

Well, that was a lot, way too much, actually!  Thanks for tagging along for the ride....  There is so much so incredibly positive stuff going on, that I can hardly keep my head above water.  For anybody coming to Armenia this summer, you are most welcome to contact me for a cup of coffee, or perhaps a visit to one of our projects.  They would love it, I would love it, you would love it!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Things Can Only Get Better - In Honor of the Women of Berd

With the Berd Bears being launched on Kickstarter in just a couple of days, I am reflecting a bit on a woman up there in Berd whose whole life has been nothing but hardship.  She doesn't walk around complaining that life is tough, but she has every right to.  She is the very symbol of a tough life-  Married as the Soviet Union crumbled.  First baby as the pogroms started, second as the war broke out.  Her husband went to Russia just as the ink dried on the ceasefire, and she has no idea if he is alive today.  Alone with two kids to feed, clothe and educate.  Border closed.  No job. Sporadic electricity. Can't afford gas heating.  Muddy, potholed streets.  All that tough stuff that Berd has been the past 20 years, for all of them there.

Then a random foreign guy comes along and says that a German nun did a great job with teaching them how to knit bears, and that in a year's time all the ladies will be making bears and bear clothing.  Yeah, sure, what planet are you from?

Fast forward a year.  Kickstarter is going to splash their teddy bears all over the internet, and people around the world are going to go amok hitting the 'support' button- support for the women of Berd.  It is not only a teddy bear, it is a message of hope and optimism from one of the most difficult areas of Armenia to live in.  It is jobs. It is shoes for the kids.  And it is a fab teddy bear.

I have been watching the women in Berd during that year.  20 years of Armenian independence has been a long, cold winter for them.  It has been a tough life.  And now, because of a teddy bear, a small window has opened for them.  They are growing, blossoming like flowers.  They are working hard.  They have a purpose.  They have a goal.  They giggled gleefully as we filmed them for the Kickstarter film clip.  They fuss over the teddy bears, making sure the smile on each one is exactly correct, the length of the dress just right.  It's great to see.

Respect for the women of Berd.

Things can only get better.



Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Talin Time

Two times the past three weeks I have been up in Talin.  It is a new region for Homeland Handicrafts, in Aragatsotn marz.  Talin is the place you whiz past on your way up to Gyumri.  Everybody has heard of it(Isn't that the capitol of Estonia?), but nobody goes there.  In my going on 12 years in Armenia, I had never been in Talin, charging past it like everybody else.  It is literally a two minute drive off that main Yerevan-Gyumri.  It is in a flat, barren stony region of the country, almost desert-like.

Yet in this town are two amazing people.  One of them is a piano-playing Peace Corps volunteer by the name of Brian Bokhart from Indianapolis, Indiana.  The other is a young woman named Gayane Kachatryan who wants to make a difference in her community.  Brian contacted me and suggested I come and take a look.  I did during the second week of January this year. 

Talin is in many ways typical of many Armenian towns and villages.  High unemployment rates.  High emigration rates.  Not a lot of hope for the future.  While waiting for Brian to meet me in the main square on my first visit, an older man started talking to me.  I asked him about Talin and its future.  He said 'It is not good.  Two of my three children are in Russia.  They send a little money, but it is difficult.  During the Soviet times we had lots of apple orchards, but now the irrigation system is not working, so there is nothing.  Not one single new government building has been built since the Soviet times'.  A hard first message to receive in a town during the first five minutes, it was.  Still, Talin is neater, tidier than many Armenian towns I have been in.

Now, I like challenges, so already we are planning on developing a series of hand crocheted dolls in traditional Armenian clothing.  One for Isfahan, one for Artvin, one for Moush etc etc.  Several wonderful women have already said they want to participate- Ani, Margarit, Sahakanoush(lovely name!), and two women from the village of Verin Sasunashen a few kilometers away.  But I want it to be right.  I have never liked those carpet dolls that are sold in the market in Yerevan.  Too ratty, too rough if you ask me.  I was up there yesterday again, and they had made eight samples.  None were good enough, so I explained what changes need to be made, and am looking forward to the new samples to be finished in a few days.  No pictures will be posted until it is just right!

Big thanks go to Gayane and Brian for inviting me along on another adventure with Homeland Handicrafts!

It's Talin time!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Simply Amazing

Those of you following my profile or the Homeland Handicrafts page on Facebook(what exactly is the difference between those two things?) know that I have started 2012 with exciting trips to two opposite sides of Armenia:  Vardenis in the east on January 3rd, and Talin in the west on January 6th.

These were two vastly different experiences in this tiny country.  Vardenis is cold, windy and icy.  Talin is sunny with not a lot of snow on the ground.  Vardenis has mountains on one side, and Lake Sevan on the other, Talin is on a flat plain.  Vardenis is an established organization, Talin has an individual woman who wants to help the women in the villages.  Vardenis is two and a half hours away from Yerevan, while Talin is about 50 minutes.  I pushed them in two distinctly different directions, in an attempt to give each group something distinctly theirs, as I always do.  In Vardenis we will do sewing, quilting and applique, while in Talin we will focus on crocheting a series of new, innovative items(which I am very excited about!)

In Vardenis, the need for a new sewing machine was crystal clear.  I remember my Mom sewing on an old Singer like they have up there when I was a kid in the 60s, and even then that was a clunker.  So I posted a photo and told the story on Facebook- and it took off.  The Norwegian Armenian community circled around the idea of raising money for a new machine first, giving first USD 200, and then another USD 100.  Then a  U.S. diaspora kicked in with another 500.  Within about 6 hours of me posting the request, I had enough to buy them a good, solid machine.  Is that not simply amazing?

Yesterday I met with Laura Maas, the U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Vardenis, and we discussed how to set this up.  She will tell the ladies in Vardenis that there is money to buy a new machine.  They will come to Yerevan to help choose the machine(take mental ownership).  A rotating fund will be set up in Vardenis, where a percentage of all sales of products goes into the fund(teaching administrative and planning skills).  The money accumulated in the fund can be used by the organization to purchase what they need later, with the agreement of Laura and myself(organizational development through collective decision-making).  My instinct says save towards more attachments to the first machine(piping attachment, for example), or buy a new machine that does embroidery.  We shall see, learn together how best to do this.

Through this USD 800 in seed capital, we have the opportunity to create the basics of a sustainable production unit in Vardenis.  It won't be easy.  There will be bumps in the road(goodness knows there are plenty of big icy bumps in the roads of  winter Vardenis already!).  Still, this is what Homeland Handicrafts does- we start with a little something and we work hard to make it bigger and better, for the benefit of women in the villages of Armenia.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the support of the diaspora, both morally and financially.  It would not be possible without wonderful women in Vardenis who want to work.  It would not be possible without Laura Maas!  Thanks so very much to each of you who are making this possible.

That was Vardenis.  The first samples are due to be finished by January 15th.  Can't wait!

Now, on to Talin....

I love my life.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Zorro in Vardenis

The new year started with a blast of cold air as I got into the car with Peace Corps volunteer Laura Maas, her friend Cal from the U.S., and Arshak from Yerevan.  We headed up to Lake Sevan and swung right to Vardenis, rather than my normal left to Berd.  Laura has been in Vardenis since August, and has encouraged me to bring Homeland Handicrafts there.  'It's needed' she said.  Little did I know.  We stopped off at Noradus on the way up, and it took us only about five minutes among the beautiful, snow dusted khachkars there before we lost the feeling in our fingers and toes.  Cold!

Back in the car, we head out to Vardenis, which lies out beyond the very end of Lake Sevan, a good two hour and ten minute drive from Yerevan in a fast car.  Vardenis is a lot farther away from Yerevan than I thought...and a lot windier and colder.   We wait at the roundabout in the middle of town to meet up with Melanya the head of Astghavank, and I film a 360 degree clip from the middle of it.  Cold, bitter wind, and not a lot happening in Vardenis an early January day.  But Zorro smiles nicely from a mobile phone ad.

Astghavank is an organization working with the parents of disabled kids, and have experience with sewing clothing.  It is difficult, surprisingly enough, to find good sewing skills in Armenia.  Maybe here in Vardenis we can do something.  With a set of designs for potholders and table mats in hand, we visit the Astghavank center, an old kindergarten building that the mayor of Vardenis has given them the right to use for the next 50 years.  Because of the freezing temperatures in the building, we stay only a few minutes, but see that they are in need of new machinery.  They produce decent quality with what they have, but it is not good enough for export quality, which is our goal.

Off to seamstress Lena's house through icy bumps in the road that are bigger than ski slope moguls, we huddle around the wood stove in her living room, and discuss potholders... Mt. Ararat, 'hamov e', and other concepts are discussed, but we settle on a donkey and pomegranate...as a test of many things:  quality, aesthetic understanding, willingness to try something new, attention to detail, communication, and all those other things that need to be in place to develop a successful line of products.

Done with the potholders, we are whisked off to the overloaded Christmas table, and toast, eat and discuss unemployment(very high among women), emigration(35% have left Vardenis since independence) and such before jumping in the car and heading back to Yerevan as the sun goes down, and a sudden snowstorm turns the road into a sheet of ice with swirling snow.

Also swirling are the thoughts in my head.  Vardenis is not what I expected.  It is colder.  It is windier. It is emptier.  It is sadder.  It is a perfect place for Homeland Handicrafts to try to make a small difference.

Boy, does Vardenis need Zorro.  But in the meantime, let's make potholders.

Check out:  http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.336561073023528.86051.224555134224123&type=3

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Thanks for coming along...

What a heck of year it is has been.  The terrorist attack in Norway that deeply affected me personally, the world economy that affects each and every one of us.  In Armenia, domestic violence, environmental issues, deaths of young Armenians in the military and the usual discussions of corruption, nepotism and oligarchs and a visit by the Norwegian foreign minister.  Hectic.  In the middle of all this, I have kept myself positively busy with Homeland Handicrafts.  It has been my savior, my life jacket in choppy seas.

Hours and hours in the car, thoughts to myself, getting out to the far reaches of Armenia.  Coffee, lots of coffee, and those that know me best know that I love a chicken kebab in lavash, with ketchup and onion.

It is those individuals that I meet in those villages that keep me going.  Good, warm, humorous, decent, hardworking people who only need a chance to show what they are capable of.  Thanks to Mariam, Hasmik, Gohar, Robert, Nver, Ashot, Nune, Anahit, Seda, Tamara, David, Lilit, Knarik, Satik and all the others that I have been introduced to during the year.

So, let's see where 2012 takes us.  Vartenis with applique work, Gyumri with beadwork, and maybe Talin with I'm not sure what.

Thanks for coming along, either as a producer, a customer, a donor, a cheerleader.

You all make it possible!

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

This night...

...a lot of kids like these, both in Armenia and abroad ...

will receive a bunch of things like these... 

 which will provide income for women like these..

..so they can provide a better life for kids like this one..

That is what Homeland Handicrafts is all about.

May peace be with your every step