Volunteers Spend Their Vacations Building Homes for Armenia’s Most Underserved

RIVER VALE, NJ – From July 17-28, 2014, Leo and Sona Manuelian of New Jersey led a home building mission to Armenia under the auspices of the Fuller Center for Housing Armenia (FCHA). Since 2010, they have dedicated every summer to assisting the homeless in Armenia; they have led five teams and more than 75 volunteers from the United States. Their story of selfless devotion to their brothers and sisters in Armenia is inspired by their deep Christian faith. Leo and Sona are doing what most Diasporan Armenians only think about – they are foregoing trips to tropical islands or tours of Europe and are instead spending their hard-earned vacation money working shoulder to shoulder with Armenian families in need.

Leo’s first trip to Armenia was 11 years ago as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity Armenia. He was so impressed with the work being done to give rural families decent and safe homes that he decided to become a team leader himself. In 2008, Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat, created a new organization, called the Fuller Center for Housing. Leo decided he would join the new Fuller Center affiliate in Armenia. His close friends and former Habitat staff started the FCHA organization.

Leo’s parents were both victims of the Armenian Genocide. His parents often told him the stories of their suffering. Leo explains, “I do this work because I never want to see Armenians forced from their lands. Homelessness is a problem we can solve, and I am committed to being a part of the solution by building homes for families who need our help. I do this work with a tremendous amount of pride. I will work with FCHA until the good Lord calls me home.”

The Manuelian's 2014 team with the homeowners in the village of Kanakeravan
The Manuelian’s 2014 team with the homeowners in the village of Kanakeravan

With his 2014 trip just a few weeks behind him, Leo is already ordering tools and other supplies to take to FCHA in 2015. Not for one moment does this man stop talking about Armenia, its beautiful people, and the Fuller Center for Housing. And now his wife, Sona, has embraced her husband’s deep-seeded passion.

Sona has been a team leader by Leo’s side for the past five years. She didn’t join his earlier trips because of a great fear of flying. However, when Leo would return from Armenia with his emotional stories about the families and the land, she was unable to resist the strong force tugging her toward the homeland.

Sona shares, “Helping my sisters and brothers in Armenia fills my heart with joy. There is no other country like Armenia. My roots are here. Working with the Fuller Center gives me such elation that my heart becomes larger than my body! We do God-pleasing work. Our team members and the homeowners all join together, hand in hand, to build a new home. Where they had nothing before, the families now have a home and hope for the future. To see the smiles on the homeowners’ faces is priceless. I will continue to come to Armenia and work with FCHA until the day I die!”

This year, Leo and Sona led a team of 14 volunteers from the U.S. Including themselves, the team members were: Beth Broussalian (California), Mary and Benjamin Nikssarian (California), Avedis Kargenian (Illinois), Perry Sarkisian (New York), Richard Sarkisian, (New Jersey), Sean Hughes (New York), Gary and Christian Khachian (Connecticut), Andrea and Steven Sinnott (Maryland), and Jennifer Mugerditchian (Georgia). They worked on the home of Archanik and Susanna Simonyan in the village of Kanakeravan, on the outskirts of Yerevan. During their six workdays, the team filled and concreted the floors of the three-bedroom house and insulated the attic with crushed “doof” or “toof”, an indigenous volcanic rock.

Team members, homeowner Archanik Simonyan (top left), and the Fuller Center staff get ready to prepare the concrete flooring
Team members, homeowner Archanik Simonyan (top left), and the Fuller Center staff get ready to prepare the concrete flooring

During one of the work days, the team was joined by youth from the Christian Youth Mission to Armenia (CYMA – Western Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America) and residents of Mer Hooys, a program based in Yerevan that provides opportunities to young adult women from( disadvantaged lifestyles so they may achieve a productive and secure( future. When not working, the team enjoyed sightseeing in Yerevan and touring breathtaking religious and cultural monuments.

To become an FCHA beneficiary, prospective homeowners must complete an application. The application first undergoes a paper audit and then a field audit to determine eligibility. To be eligible, a family must own a half-built home or a home in need of renovation; have an income which can sustain the family, but is not enough to allow them to complete construction of the house on their own or to pay off a bank loan; and, as a result of these factors, live in substandard housing (typically, a portion of the uncompleted house, a “domik”, or a borrowed home). FCHA has no shortage of applicants.

In addition to its sweat equity, the beneficiary family is only required to cover the cost of basic materials (what the Fuller Center calls “the economy of Jesus”). Upon completion and occupation of the house, the cost of materials is converted to an interest-free mortgage, which the family pays in an affordable monthly amount. These funds are then used to purchase materials for other villagers’ homes. In the more than ten years that this work has been advanced in Armenia, approximately 650 families have been provided with an affordable and decent home.

The positive impact of the FCHA program extends beyond the tangible economic and social benefits. It has proven to be 100% effective in stemming emigration. NOT ONE FAMILY HELPED BY FCHA HAS EMIGRATED. From the perspective of the volunteers, this experience allows them to learn about the homeland and enjoy the satisfaction of engaging in a truly Christian experience. It’s a win-win-win situation!

The Manuelian’s have already set their trip dates for next year: July 1-13, 2015. For more information, contact Leo Manuelian at [email protected], Sona Manuelian at [email protected] or call 201-746-0409. To learn about additional trip dates with FCHA, please visit www.fullercenterarmenia.org or email [email protected].


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