"It's far more useful to teach children skills in the school. It will help them in the future."
-- Hoite Spykstra
Hoite Spykstra, a retired math teacher from Holland, remembers when the reality of post-earthquake Armenia hit him.
"We entered a dark corridor hardly lit by an electric lamp somewhere at the end. It was not difficult to imagine what the classrooms would look like. There were five of us looking for a girl who had stayed in our house in the Netherlands for four weeks. She had lost all her close relatives, her father, mother, brother and sisters, during the earthquake in Armenia in 1988. It was 1995, and the uncle in Armenia who had taken care of her died, and she was alone. She was studying in that boarding school, which was made out of modern wooden wagons. That was what brought us to Armenia."
Shocked by what he saw, Spykstra decided to help the Shirak region of Armenia. An estimated 25,000-35,000 Armenians died in that 1988 earthquake, many of them from the Shirak regional capital of Gyumri, a city of about 180,000 located about 120 km northwest of Yerevan. Except for a few structures in the Old City, almost every building in Gyumri was destroyed.
"The headmaster of Boarding School 4 asked us for help," Spykstra remembers. "They needed more beds, blankets, towels. I promised to collect money in Holland and help them. Besides, I wanted to arrange help for orphan children."
When the program began, groups of 20 children from Armenia were invited to Holland for four weeks. But because there were so many children with problems that required support, Armenian officials suggested the money be spent in Armenia. So back in Holland an organization called "FamToFam" (family to family) was formed. It finds families in Holland who will support very poor children in Armenia.
"One year later, we members of FamToFam came to see what was done with our help," says Spykstra, president of the organization. "We also started to help Boarding School 2.
The organization has been working in Armenia for 10 years. Today it has several projects mainly directed to the needs of poor children. As a result of an educational project, computer classes were developed. Holland potato seed is grown by Armenian farmers, and the schools get much-need food for the winter. A total of 137 children who lost parents and are from poor families get 9.95 euro per month deposited into an account in an Armenian bank.
"When you have no job, that money helps you a lot to ease your needs. Especially now when a new school year has started." says Sirvard Zakaryan, the mother of two school-age children who lost her husband in Kharabakh conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan.
"We are small group of volunteers, seven people," Spykstra said. "We also have several groups that are supporting us, and they sometimes raise money by selling second-hand books, collecting money in the churches. Youngsters go door-to-door and accept money from families, and a Dutch governmental organization matches that amount. So we can realize several projects."
"All our projects are aimed at the problems that exist in the families and schools. Every time we visit families living in wagons, we see they don't have necessary furniture.
That's when the idea of aiding such families with the help of Holland families occurred." says Avetik Melik-Sargisyan, head of the Armenian Famtofam office.
In August, Hoite Spykstra came to Armenia with new projects.
"We are bringing equipment for a bakery for Boarding School 2, so that they can bake their own bread and also for Boarding School 4. In the Shirak region there are many families that lost their furniture during the earthquake, and we are also shipping equipment for wood working so that pupils can develop skills to make furniture for these families. This works twice: it helps poor people and gives good skills to the pupils. Both of these projects will be realized by pupils, helping them learn some skills for the future."
The headmaster of the Boarding School 2, Gagik Suqiasyan, said financial support from the Armenian government is completely directed to textbooks, food, salaries and maintenance costs.
"The help of FamToFam is very important for us," Suqiasyan said. "Our Holland friends apologize for not providing a lot, but what they do for us is big. To tell the truth, we didn't expect it."
"We have another project aimed at Boarding School 2, which is to develop sports, mainly football with the help of the Holland football federation," said Melik-Sargsyan.
Hoite Spykstra has other projects in mind. "We don't know what will be done next, but we would like to work more in the direction of helping people get jobs. Maybe we can arrange microfinancing with a Holland organization. Sometimes people have skills, but have no money to start.
"But it is better to talk about it after it has started."