By Florence Avakian

The opening of any event is a cause for festivity, but when It involves a benefit to children, it becomes a special celebration. On Friday, September 20, in Armenia’s second largest city, Gyumri, the opening of the Octet Music School in Gyumri took place to great fanfare.

Attending this auspicious event were the President of Armenia Serge Sarkisian, the Primate of the Armenian Diocese (eastern) Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, and noted philanthropists Edward and Janet Mardigian and son Grant who with the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) were the major contributors to this project. Also present were members of the Board of Directors of the Fund for Armenian Relief, (FAR), and renowned musician Ian Gillan.

But it was the group of students and teachers of this sparkling new school built with Armenia’s famed tuff stone, who visibly were the most ecstatic. Smiling broadly, with eyes glistening, 35 of the 120 students showed their extraordinary talents for which they are well-known, by playing several beloved Armenian compositions to the delight of the large throng. Young student Dadiana Mikaelian, glowing with happiness commented, “Before we were very cold with the wind constantly blowing. Now, we will be comfortable and able to advance in our work which we love.”

Archbishop Barsamian, President of the FAR Board, in his inspiring address at the opening, recalled the critical time in Gyumri which suffered greatly as a result of the 1988 tragic earthquake. The Octet Music School in Gyumri “was always a training ground for children of extraordinary musical talent where children had to take classes in tin and wooden broken-down shelters left over from the temporary emergency housing of the disaster zone. Now after 20 years, these gifted children have an institution worthy of their aspirations.”

Left to right - FAR Board chairman Randy Sapah-Gulian, Grant and Janet Mardigian, and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian
Left to right – FAR Board chairman Randy Sapah-Gulian, Grant and Janet Mardigian, and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian

Angels of Mercy
The Primate paid tribute to the “angels of mercy”, Ian Gillan, Tony Iommi, Geoff Downes, John Dee, the All-Armenia Fund, the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), and most of all to Edward and Janet Mardigian who “took the bulk of the rebuilding project onto their strong shoulders. They opened their generous hearts to provide this city, and its young artists with an institution worthy of their aspirations.” Expressing his “deepest gratitude and admiration” to the Mardigian family, he declared that the “dreams of this school, and especially the children of Gyumri have become a beautiful reality.”

The Mardigian Foundation, led by Edward and Janet Mardigian and their sons, Matthew and Grant, is also a major benefactor of the FAR Children’s Center in Yerevan, and in 2012 made an unprecedented commitment to funding FAR’s “Breaking the Life Cycle of Poverty” program in Armenia’s poverty-stricken Tavoush region. Their involvement in Armenia was the inspiration of Janet Mardigian who visited Armenia several years ago as a Diocesan Council member. “We have to do something over there. There is so much need,” she said at the time.

Going together to see the original appalling condition of the Octet Music School four years ago, and seeing that some children walked more than two miles to reach the cold, dark, dingy and unstable structure, Edward and Janet Mardigian immediately took on the project. “There was a great need to renovate the school. It was in horrific condition. And for many of the students there was only one instrument.” He called the Fund for Armenian Relief, and said, “I’ll do it. My shovel is ready.” All the drawings were secured, and ground was broken in one month. “I love to do charity work with children, and music has been part of Armenian life throughout the centuries.”

It was in September of 2012 that the Mardigians with their two sons, Matthew and Grant, visited the school where renovations were already underway. In a symbolic ceremony, Matthew and Grant put a time capsule into the foundation. “Watching my two boys, signified for me that the tradition of my family and my parents was working and being carried on,” relates Mr. Mardigian.

Little Shining Stars
“The school is beautiful. It was so heartwarming to see the great difference in a year’s time. I was very touched,” said Mr. Mardigian upon his return from Armenia in September. “Helping even one child can make such a difference. They are little shining stars.” But Mr. Mardigian who hates to be in the limelight, likes to do things anonymously, and stay in the background, was surprised after the dedication “when all the cameras crowded into my face.”

Seeing the new school and the beaming students a year later, Grant, a free-lancer in the engineering and production areas of music, and who spoke at the opening, called it “pretty cool”. Matthew and Grant are part of the family’s Mardigian Foundation started by their grandparents Edward and Helen Mardigian.

At the close of the ceremony, President Sarkisian, Grant Mardigian, Jon Dee, the youth of the community, and other special guests planted trees in the schoolyard donated by the Armenia Tree Project to green the site of the re-born music school.

Edward Mardigian, the son of legendary leader in business and philanthropy Edward Mardigian, Sr., is continuing his father’s leadership in both the Armenian and American communities. The Mardigian Foundation has been a major contributor to the Diocesan Mardigian Institute for Christian Education, the Ararat Center, the Youth and Education Department, the Sunday School Program, and St. John’s Armenian Church of Greater Detroit.

Octet Music School  children performing
Octet Music School children performing

In the American community, the Mardigian Foundation has with great generosity donated to hospitals, libraries, and zoos in the Michigan area, as well as to the University of Michigan, the Mayo Clinic, the Animal Rescue League and the Humane Society.

“My parents taught us to want to give back,” he says with his long-time dedication and humility. “They communicated that this country had been good to them, and so they wanted to give back mainly to the Armenian community, but also to everyone.”

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