Camps have always been the main source of work for us PCVs during the summer, especially those of us who are teachers. Last summer, I led a modest five day summer camp in my village. It was more of a multi-day game marathon where Vaghatin’s students met their new American volunteer/English teacher. This summer was far more ambitious in so many ways.
Directly after I finished Border to Border, my thoughts turned to the next task, TOBE. TOBE (Teaching Our Boys Excellence) is a boy’s leadership camp that’s been taking place in various Peace Corps postings throughout the world. At these camps boys are usually taught a curriculum that includes human rights, civic engagement, gender equality, healthy habits, etc. Specifically, in Armenia, TOBE has been an ongoing since 2014.
Upon hearing about this some people may ask, “Why do the boys of Armenia need a camp? Don’t they have enough of an advantage in being male?” And I would agree that boys here have many benefits. However, I would also argue that regardless of gender, the future of Armenia rests in the hands of its boys and girls. Giving them the tools to think about themselves, their country and the world in a broader and more critical way is of the utmost importance.
This year’s camp accepted about 50 boys (between the ages of 14 and 17) from all over Armenia and shipped them to a campground in northern Armenia (near Vanadzor). For many of these boys, it was their first time spending more than a few hours away from their families. I remember seeing a fair number of mothers wiping away tears as they kissed their sons goodbye. As we left Republic Square, that hot July day, many of the boys seemed apprehensive about the time they were about to spend away from all that was familiar.
A few hours later, the bus we were on could take our group no further due to the fragmented nature of the road. While we waited for the next form of transport to arrive, I noticed the boys started to stare into their phones less and talk with one another more. Some dealt a game of durak (“fool” in Russian, it’s a popular card game in many former Soviet states). I heard a group discuss computer programming. Other boys passed around a guitar to show off their varying skill. The uneasy air that originally filled our bus gradually turned to a more boisterous one.
After we arrived at the camp and everyone had settled in, we divided up into our camper groups. Each group consisted of about 6 to 8 boys (from varying regions of Armenia) and two counselors (often times one American and one Armenian). I was lucky enough to be paired with Hmayak, one of the most charismatic men I have met here. He was able to capture any boy’s attention on any subject and get them to thoughtfully engage in a discussion. At one point during the camp, he even organized a well-attended debate where boys discussed topics ranging from gender equality to compulsory military service. Our group, later dubbed “Eight Shades of Purple,” was one of the best due in no small part to Hmayak.
Each day started with everyone’s favorite muscley PCV, Chibu, bursting into the boys’ rooms, stomping around and yelling, “Bari Lois!” Thus surprising the boys unfortunate enough to still be asleep. Next the boys went outside and engaged in some sort of exercise (usually calisthenics lead by Chibu or Ryan). After a brief breakfast, the boys were herded into the conference room that stood next the ever tantalizing pool. From here different counselors and guest speakers led sessions on various topics. I can honestly say that when I first applied to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, I never thought I’d one day be speaking about human rights and the dangers of gonorrhea in Armenian.
Between lessons, the boys were free to roam around the camp ground and spend their free time how they wished. Many counselors ended up using this time to play Uno with the campers (I avoided this game since my daily practice during the school has put me on par with professional Uno players). I usually played guitar with other campers (who insisted on exclusively playing Ed Sheeran songs). On two occasions I even stepped into the role of swim instructor and taught some boys how to swim backstroke. I’m not sure how effective I was seeing as how I don’t know how to say technical swim jargon in Armenian like, “Don’t drag your feet” and “Stick your butt out of the water!”
At times, the working as a counselor was exhausting. For whatever reason, I was surprised to find that boys on summer vacation were not excited to be stuffed in a hot classroom and forced to learn about STD’s. I’m not sure if getting them to stay quiet during a presentation or making sure they stayed in bed was the hardest.
In spite of all the struggles, there were plenty of victories to be had. I helped two boys drum up the courage to play guitar and sing for a visiting State Department official. A number of boys from “Eight Shades of Purple” recited poetry before a small audience. A particularly quiet boy from my group overcame his shyness and asked one of the female counselors to dance with him on the last night of camp.
Of course the main fruits of this camp’s labor may never be revealed to us. It’s silly to expect all these boys to remember everything they were taught and to enact great, sweeping changes in Armenia immediately. We all just hope that these boys took with them some of the things they learned back to their communities and into their futures.
After a brief vacation (I finally saw my parents and sister for the first time in a year and a half!), I came back to Armenia with another camp on the docket. GROW (Growing and Renewing Our World) camp is series of four day long camps whose objective is teach to children the importance of the environment and how to care for it. Armenia Tree Project, an awesome environmental NGO from Yerevan, partnered with PCVs to make this camp sustainable and more far reaching. This past summer there were five separate camps held in different regions throughout Armenia. I was lucky enough to help out at the final camp in Yeghegnadzor at the end of August.
One of the most fun (and difficult tasks) was building a bird house with a rowdy group of 4th grade boys. All we needed to do was put together seven pieces of wood with a glue gun and spray paint the house. Naturally, these boys were initially more interested in the glue gun’s potential as a weapon to be used on each other. After convincing them that they were never going to use the gun for nefarious purposes, they emphatically deliberated amongst themselves as to the correct areas to place glue and on which wall to start. By the end of the hour, our modest bird house was set out to dry in front of the school.
At the end of the week, each student promised to their classmates and the counselors that they would make one change in their daily habits to protect the environment. Some students said they would pick up a piece of trash every day, others said they would use less water and one promised to be nicer to bugs even if they’re gross! I know this all can sound a bit cheesy but little kids usually take these things to heart and sincerely mean what they say. It makes me happy that as a result of GROW, a growing number of children here appreciate Armenia’s beautiful wilderness and will put forth effort to protect it.
I was planning on taking part in a third camp by organizing my own camp in my village like last year’s. However, I simply did not have the time to pull it off this summer. Between Border to Border, a mandatory training for my cohort, TOBE, GROW and my vacation, I was in my village for the smallest amount of time. I never wanted to spend so much time away from Vaghatin but I had to. I missed Vardavar, ping pong games in the abandoned community center, some of my students’ birthdays, khorovats with my host family and numerous other little things that make life here feel full.
Despite missing my village, I am sure that the programs I took part in were fruitful. Border to Border taught healthy lifestyles to remote communities all over the country. TOBE brought together boys from across Armenia and encouraged them to be more well-rounded members of their communities. GROW showed children the beauty and importance of the nature that surrounds them. The small part I played in each of these felt as important as my English lessons during the school year. I know that as a result of our efforts this summer, many kids were convinced that they can influence positive changes in their communities. While most teachers were relaxing during the summer, myself and other PCVs were busy and successful all over Armenia.