By Taleen Babayan
A stone’s throw away from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is Little Armenia, for years the inaugural stop for immigrants arriving from a slew of conflicted countries in the Middle East during the latter half of the 20th century. As the peace in these communities derailed, Armenians found refuge in this pocket of an American Dream in the balmy Los Angeles weather, planting a new set of roots by establishing businesses, schools, churches and recreating yet again another Diasporan community. It wasn’t too long after that the homeland became an independent nation and another wave of Armenians arrived in Hollywood, the largest influx ever, who had pressing needs to be tended to.
Taking a walk down the long stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, scores of homeless occupy the streets, some sitting on a bench waiting for a bus to nowhere, while others camp out in front of churches. Many assume this scene of squalor, beneath the infamous Hollywood sign which bears so much promise, is a far cry from the prosperous Armenian community – but that is not always the case. As the immigrants from decades ago rose to their feet and achieved financial success, they began to give back and became productive members of society to the community at large. It was with this humanitarian initiative in mind that Agape Circle was created under the leadership of His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, to connect those in fruitful circumstances with those in precarious ones.
“It is a must for our people to participate in society and reflect our Christian faith and love in action,” said Archbishop Derderian. “We cannot just enjoy the benefits. We have to create them.”
In its short history, the non-profit organization has spearheaded a number of luminary contributions within and outside of Los Angeles, its reach extending cultural and religious boundaries, while maintaining its focus on the Armenian population.
A recent collaboration between Agape Circle and Armenian Relief Society Western Region’s Social Services alleviated the financial burdens of Armenian families in Los Angeles County. Through their Holiday from the Hearts program, Agape Circle adopted 21 Armenian families, raising over $7,000 to help them cover basic necessities, including rent and housing. They distributed goods, gift cards and presents for children, in person, while interacting with their fellow brethren.
“We live in a bubble and think Armenians here are fine but that is not true,” said Alice Chakrian, Chair of Agape Circle. “Through this partnership we were able to give to needy Armenian families.”
It was a mission that brought “joy and hope in the hearts of our brothers and sisters during the Christmas season,” said Archbishop Derderian.
By working hand in hand with Jasik Boniatian Jarahian, general manager of ARS who identified the families in need, Agape Circle served as an exemplary leader for the greater community.
“Not only are we making a small contribution but we are showing a united front,” said Alice. “We hope to be an example that our two groups can always work together.”
The families who benefited from the Holiday From the Hearts program were scattered across the city, from Hollywood to Sunland to Burbank to the Valley. Jasik cites the increase in rents that attributed to a number of Armenian families ending up homeless.
“They are good people but they cannot afford housing,” said Jasik. “We are trying to keep families in their homes and through donor support we provide the money to the landlords.”
She recalls an Armenian woman who was living in her car with her two children. Through this Christmas collaboration, they successfully moved her into a motel and paid for her lodging until she could secure long-term housing.
“It’s very hard when we see Armenian ladies who are not living in a home,” said Jasik, who assists families with finding permanent residences and employment. “Agape Circle and ARS have a shared goal of helping our people, which was shown during the holiday season.”
This contribution was a drop in the bucket for an organization that has fulfilled substantial and vast endeavors since its inception in 2015 when a valuable relationship was forged with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
During a meeting of community leaders where the needs of the top-ranked pediatric hospital were outlined, Archbishop Derderian, keenly aware of the significance of the Armenian Church not only as a religious shepherd but as a beacon of humanitarian work, stood up to announce a $100,000 commitment on behalf of the Western Diocese, heeding the Christian words of the Bible throughout his years as a Church servant and steward.
Agape Circle was soon launched as a bridge for the Western Diocese to provide direct support to community groups, outreach programs, and institutions that strive to ease human sufferings and to support and contribute to organizations that have impacted the lives of not only the Armenian-American community, but everyone who is in need of essential services such as healthcare and housing as well as those who suffer from addiction, poverty and abuse.
“We have a group of incredible ladies in Agape Circle who have compassionate hearts,” said Alice. “As one voice and as one community, we all agreed to take on Archbishop Derderian’s $100,000 pledge.”
Under the leadership of His Eminence, the Western Diocese was inaugurated as the founding member of the Armenian Ambassadors of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and became the first ethnic Ambassador Group.
“Communities have to be project-oriented,” said Archbishop Derderian. “People will give and will be eager to give when they see the necessities and become stakeholders in these God-pleasing missions.”
As a monumental establishment in East Hollywood, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles provides world-class medical care that extends into the adjacent Armenian community, treating over 14,000 Armenian children in the last decade.
In less than 5 years, the group raised and donated this instrumental amount and earmarked it towards Children’s Hospital programs such the Vision Center, the Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases, the Newborn and Infant Critical Care Unit, the Literally Healing Program and the Interfaith Center. To commemorate their symbolic friendship, a wooden Khatchkar (cross-stone) was unveiled in the hospital as a gesture of gratitude.
After fulfilling the $100,000 commitment and witnessing the positive effects of the donated funds, Agape Circle decided to make another pledge of $50,000 last month. Through their fundraising efforts and events, they offer the Armenian community a new and meaningful way to become engaged in altruistic causes, particularly through Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the “huge task that the hospital realizes.”
“Participating in such God-pleasing missions certainly is a privilege,” said Archbishop Derderian.
Led by 17 women from the metro Los Angeles community, Agape Circle champions the projects of Dr. Thomas C. Lee, Director of Retina Institute in The Vision Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, who has provided innovative, noninvasive and surgical treatment to children in Armenia suffering from retinal diseases, retinopathy of prematurity and pediatric ophthalmological issues. Through medical missions, telemedicine efforts and partnerships with the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry and the Armenian Eye Care Project, Dr. Lee and his Children’s Hospital Los Angeles colleagues share their expertise and touch the lives of Armenian children locally and in Armenia.
“Agape Circle has been incredibly generous with their funds to address the plight of children across the world and they have always asked how they can help and how they can do more,” said Dr. Lee, an Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “They have a huge well of love and compassion for those in need and the underserved.”
Alice refers to the award-winning Dr. Lee as a “star,” whose strong ties to Armenia date back to 2009 when he joined the Armenian EyeCare Project on a mission trip to Yerevan to help diagnose and treat diseases affecting Armenian infants. After the mission’s conclusion, he continued his connection and set up telemedicine programs so he could monitor exams and surgeries in Armenia from over 7,000 miles away. His critical work is sustained through Agape Circle.
“They were the very first group to really believe in us,” said Dr. Lee, reflecting on Archbishop Derderian’s immediate commitment that was “full of conviction” and was made “without skipping a beat.”
“We are grateful to Archbishop Derderian because he created the impetus for so many other organizations through his powerful and passionate call for action,” said Dr. Lee. “We view the Agape Circle as our guardian angels.”
Broadening the scope of its humanitarian work, Agape Circle turned towards assuaging the plight of abused women by partnering up with the YWCA Domestic Violence Shelter in Glendale, California. Through their donation, the computer room was fully renovated, creating a safe space where women will have a second chance at establishing new lives for themselves and their children. The computers – equipped with software in multiple languages including Spanish and Armenian – allowing the members to search for jobs, housing and other important resources while they work towards their independence. As the relationship flourishes further between Agape Circle and the YWCA, one of the world’s oldest and largest multicultural organizations that seeks to empower women, they plan to renovate the backyard of the shelter so girls and women can find haven following abusive experiences. In recognition of their philanthropic efforts, the YWCA Glendale bestowed the Heart of Excellence Award to The Western Diocese – Agape Circle.
Expanding its outreach abroad, Agape Circle joined in the efforts of Armenia Hearing Aid Project’s partnership with Starkey Hearing Foundation, a non-profit that provides hearing aids to people in need in the U.S. and around the world. To date, the organizations have supplied over 5,600 hearing aid units that have been distributed and fitted for over 2,800 men, women and children in Armenia since its first mission in 2017. The vital project caught the attention of Sir Elton John, who joined the following year’s mission trip, journeying to Dzaghgatsor and helping fit over 1,000 patients for hearing aids over the course of two days.
“The mission trips have been an amazing experience,” said Heidi Kavoukjian, who with her husband, Armen, founded Armenia Hearing Aid Project. “I saw the faces of children and adults light up when they were able to hear for the first time.”
In addition to the audiologists, hearing aid dispensers, doctors and volunteers from around the globe that were provided by Starkey Hearing Foundation, the organization also set up aftercare centers in Yerevan and Gyumri so people would have a place to turn to for new batteries, free repairs or other related services.
“Agape Circle has supported us unconditionally since day one,” said Heidi, who is planning a mission trip to Artsakh this summer. “Through fundraising and participating in our missions, Agape Circle has truly believed in our project.”
During its 5th anniversary luncheon last October, Agape Circle honored the Kavoukjians and Starkey Hearing Foundation for their significant work in Armenia. In turn, Heidi appreciates the genuine efforts of the Western Diocese to gain support for this venture.
“Archbishop Derderian has been a great help and has raised awareness for our program,” said Heidi. “By supporting us, they are supporting the Starkey Hearing Foundation, which has given our people the gift of hearing.”
Recognizing the far-reaching impact of Agape Circle, Alice seeks to establish a junior group in order to welcome a new generation of givers.
“Our organization is growing because there is a great need for humanitarian work,” said Alice. “We have a strong following and my team of incredible women wholeheartedly contribute their time and resources and do everything from deep within their heart to secure the lives of those around us.”
While much has been accomplished, Archbishop Derderian has his sights set even further – implementing visionary and fundamental programs that will service everyone from all generations and walks of life. A cogent thinker, Archbishop Derderian rightly places the Armenian Church at the forefront as a problem solver and leads by example for others to follow suit and embody Christ’s message.
“We are not only building churches,” said Archbishop Derderian. “We are building communities.”