Since 2000, “Zangakatun” (Belltower) Social Services NGO has led families through the difficult transition from extreme poverty into functional, productive and engaged lives. The Foundation initiated Zangakatun to implement a new model of combating extreme poverty in Armenia, empowering Armenia’s most marginalized and vulnerable families and providing the support they need to break their cycles of poverty and neglect.
The 1988 earthquake, the breakup of the Soviet Union and fallout from the Karabagh war left a large segment of Armenia’s population unemployed and cut off from society. By the end of the 1990s,
- More than half of Armenians were living in poverty.
- 23% of Armenians were living in extreme poverty*
Although many NGOs were working to relieve those impoverished, most were treating the symptoms of extreme poverty—providing individuals with food, clothing, and sometimes shelter—but doing little to cure the problems that were actually forcing Armenia’s people into poverty. Those families suffering the worst psychological, medical and social effects of extreme poverty only continued to grow in number. These families struggled with dysfunction and abandonment, unemployment and malnutrition. Their children had often never been to school, and instead spent their days begging or collecting bottles to support sickly parents.
Zangakatun began by developing a new model of aid. Rather than relying on handouts to needy individuals, it focused on in-depth work with entire families, connecting them to a complete professional support network. This network includes:
- Social workers, clergy and psychologists, who work with parents to address the underlying causes of unemployment and abusive behaviors.• Tutors and teachers, who help children catch up in their studies and provide education in key subjects that aren’t taught in the classroom, such as environmental protection, family values, and patriotic & spiritual music.
- Counselors, who give children the confidence and empowerment that poverty and abuse stole.
- Doctors, who tend to urgent medical needs.
- Lawyers, who safeguard families against legal predators and help them to understand their rights and apply for state benefits.
- Partner NGOs, that offer a range of direct support, from finding shelter for battered women and assisting with job placement to offering food and clothing.
In addition, Zangakatun’s centers in Yerevan, Medzamor and Vanadzor offered parents group therapy sessions, parenting seminars, support groups and job training classes; they also offered children daily meals, recreational activities and discussion groups to help them explore and understand what it means to be part of a family and part of a community.
From its inception through 2012, Zangakatun helped more than 1000 families transition into functional, active and—in many cases—self-sustaining lives. This has often inspired other, nearby families to follow suit.
Each family comes to Zangakatun with different needs: Some are starving and penniless, others are reliant on day labor or government benefits, and still others are being driven deeper into poverty by abuse or abandonment. In each case, Zangakatun’s staff worked to find the best ways to help these families re-integrate into their communities:
- More than 90 of these families overcame abusive or destructive behaviors.• Over 100 families securely came out of extreme poverty.
- More than 100 delinquent students returned to school and demonstrated improved behavior
- More than 850 schoolchildren overcame their social handicaps and became leaders of their classes.
- Nearly 200 children have moved on from Zangakatun programs and into university programs.
Knowing only a life of extreme poverty often leaves children withdrawn, isolated, self-abusive and unable to communicate. Zangakatun has helped nearly 2,000 children move past the wounds of poverty and develop normal, healthy friendships and a vision of themselves as part of a family, a community, and a country.
“I always felt lonely,” says one Zangakatun student, whose sentiment was echoed by many peers. “I didn’t know I could talk to other people, and I didn’t know they’d care if I did. Now, I have friends and a family I can rely on. Zangakatun has helped us learn to be part of my city.”
Since being restructured in 2012, Zangakatun has continued at a reduced scale, with several of its component programs spinning off into fully-fledged NGOs in their own right. Successful spin-offs include the Women’s Support Center NGO, the “Shogh” Educational Day Center in Vanadzor, and the “Family & Community” NGO in Metsamor, all of which enjoy continuing Foundation support.