The AYF Spirit Award and Then Some: Penny Giragosian

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By Harry Derderian

Penny Giragosian.

The name says plenty.

(L-R) Anahid Varadian and Garry Giragosian receiving the Spirit Award for Penny, Maro Kachadourian, and Sylvia Varadian.

Simply, Penny’s awesome personality wrote an extraordinary and unparalleled mission statement for her volunteer life and as an Armenian outside the bounds of organizations. She wrote a statement of purpose for one stage of her life, wrote it again at another stage, and then wrote it again, this time making an impact in the Homeland.

Penny became “Mayr Hayastan.”

In deference to others who have come and those who will come along, she had no peer and will not have a peer. “Remarkable” and “special” fit this classy lady.

The Alumni Night response to Penny’s recognition posthumously with the AYF Spirit Award was as heartwarming and respectful as could be. For those not there, an impact also.

People smile, people remember—with affection and respect.

The AYF gives the Annual AYF Varadian Spirit Award to an individual(s) who best exemplifies the fraternal “spirit” of the AYF. The award is a fitting extension of the entire Varadian family’s love for the AYF and for the people who, to quote one of Mal Varadian’s most famous statements, “make it better than it was.”

The message: Be an AYF member, be an active participant and supporter in your community, and give back when you leave the organization to maintain and improve it for others.

Give back, make it better, and improve it for others? Penny did that big time in a far-reaching manner. In fact, no one has done it in such a borderless manner, driven by love and good deeds and with a greater impact than Penny. Her native New Britain, Providence, and New England were not her boundaries. Her community became Armenia also.

She made things better by breaking ground in Armenia—for all Armenians; there were no organizational boundaries.

Penny’s journey of Armenian heart and soul—lit by the AYF spirit—started in New Britain as a spirited personality in New England AYF activities; moved along up the highway to a welcoming Providence community, and at Camp Haiastan as a volunteer nurse (she earned her master’s degree in nursing from Yale University) for 12 summers; expressed itself in the United Nations NGO environments in New York, The Hague, Athens and Geneva; and extended to households and orphanages in Armenia and Karabagh.

Maro Minassian, who worked with Penny on many projects referred to in this article and has been a longtime ARS activist as ARS Eastern regional chair and chair of the ARS Executive Board, sums up Penny’s achievements well: “Penny was one of the few who understood best what ARS, Inc. could do and must do at the U.N. as an NGO for Armenia and Karabagh. … She was the driving force of ARS, Inc. activities at the U.N. … and instrumental in accomplishments in and out of the United States in the areas of human rights, women’s health, advocacy for disabled children, etc.”

People smile, people remember—with affection and respect.

Naira Avetisyan, the deputy head of the Council of Europe Office in Yerevan, thinks back: “I met Penny for the first time back in 1994 or 1995 in a children’s neurological hospital in Yerevan where I used to work as a neurologist-geneticist. She visited our hospital in order to discuss issues related to children with disabilities in Armenia. … Penny was on a mission to help children.”

After the earthquake in Armenia, Penny’s thoughts turned to a ravaged Homeland and the plight of children with disabilities. With all the issues of the earthquake and move to Independence, Penny noted that people in Armenia had no understanding of children’s disability and rehabilitation, leaving unfortunate youth with no hope much less help.

Sadly, this was a time in Armenia when parents were almost ashamed to talk about their disabled children, unable to cope with the tragedy of a disabled child in a society that could not offer understanding. There were no NGOs to protect children’s rights much less speak for these children or work with the parents.

Penny’s contribution to the ultimate acknowledgement of child disabilities started with her role with Medical Outreach. She brought children here to the U.S. for treatment and also secured medical supplies to Armenia for children who could not come here.

She also established her own NGO, “Children of Armenia Reaching Peaks”. Penny’s advocacy skills helped in great measure to change the attitude of decision makers and professionals in Armenia and, most importantly, the attitudes of parents.

Around 1994, she facilitated a gathering of more than 100 parents in Yerevan to meet with each other and with NGOs to discuss and define direction for creating rights and programs for disabled children.

Soon thereafter, with organizational funding, she and members of the Armenian Republic’s medical community participated in the World Congress on Disability—the first time there was an Armenian presence at such an event.

With momentum and awareness gathering for Penny’s vision for disabled youth in our Homeland, she met with and worked with Ministry of Health officials to help establish projects on child disability.

In warm tone, Der Gomidas Baghsarian summarizes well: “Penny Giragosian was filled with love for her people…helping those who struggled to survive.”

People smile, people remember—with affection and respect.

Penny also worked with Children’s Neurological Hospital in Yerevan and organized a U.N. seminar for experts from Armenia to exchange views with experts from Harvard and Emory, among other universities. Awarded the Providence ARS Mother of the Year Award, she was a member of ARS, Inc.’s NGO Steering Committee, and worked with UNICEF to gain support for studies in domestic violence; engaged UNDP in a program for “Early Detection on Childhood Disability” with experts from the United States; organized the first inter-ministerial, international conference on childhood disability in Armenia; and established a joint program with the UMass Medical Center AIDS Clinic to raise awareness and response to AIDS in Armenia.

Carol Jaffarian, an instructor at UMass Graduate Medical School, was involved with Penny at the time and remembers how “cases of HIV were being documented and testing was to occur at the [ARS] Mother-Child Clinic in Akhourian. … UMass collaborated with the ARS with a grant from World Aids Foundation to determine a needs assessment. … Penny secured and facilitated our resources and was our constant cheerleader. … Armenia’s HIV Education and Prevention Project was born.”

Carol, since then a leading ARS activist, kept her promise to Penny to be continually involved and has been a member of the United Nations NGO Committee.

In an article in Worcester Medicine magazine, Carol, in writing about her experience in Armenia, stated, “I thank Penny Giragosian for being a role model and friend…her passion for helping others lives on in those she mentored.”

In 2006, Carol participated on a U.N. panel discussion celebrating Penny’s achievements; the panel discussion was entitled, “The Power of One Bringing Hope and Change Through Volunteerism.”

People smile, people remember—with affection and respect.

With Penny’s direction, UNICEF Armenia and Armenia received support for a study on violence against children in the country, and the report was presented at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting at the U.N. in New York and later at the World Congress on Child Abuse in Australia.

Penny organized countless ARS workshops at the U.N. in the areas of human rights, women’s health, and children’s disability. She often participated for the ARS in The Hague, Athens, Durban, and Geneva conferences and, on certain occasions, responded with spirited nationalism to anti-Armenia and anit-Karabagh propaganda woven into the forums by anti-Armenian NGOs.

There is no conclusion to the thoughts of Penny Giragosian, whose legacy is far beyond that of a traditional dedicated volunteer in a local community The attitudes toward children with disabilities in Armenia has changed over the years. It is a matter of record that Penny’s spirit—the consummate AYF member—created the conviction to help the future of Armenia by helping its disabled children, and giving them hope, confidence, and capability.

She created a vision, shaped it, and generated results seen today in Armenia. She will be remembered as “Mayr Hayastan” not only to her AYF generation but to disabled children and their families in Armenia, to whom she gave hope, self-respect, and assistance so that they could have productive lives.

Fotini Dionisopoulos summarizes best: “Penny gave of herself to so many and never looked back. … Growing up at camp or in the community I saw her love for all. … Her tireless spirit and positive force was an inspiration. … Penny’s devotion and love to everyone around her and her Armenian spirit was a beacon of light to anyone who knew her. … We all cherish her spirit thorough the Varadian Spirit Award.”

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: The AYF Spirit Award and Then Some: Penny Giragosian