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People, Places, Stuff


Susan Spano, U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer
Ashtarak, Armenia
May-December, 2015

Ashtarak is a town of about 20,000, located in central Armenia about 30 miles north of the capital. It sits on the southern flank of Mount Aragats—the tallest mountain in the country—and lines the gorge of the Kasagh River. Ashtarak has plentiful water, irrigation channels built hundreds of years ago that still function and a beautiful medieval bridge at the bottom of the gorge.
But like so much of Armenia, the town suffers from desperate unemployment and capital flight. There are simply no jobs or industries. Men go to work in Russia or the Ukraine, or move to Yerevan for jobs, leaving Ashtarak a ghost town, full of empty houses and fatherless families.

Women stay home or work as teachers, sometimes for as little as $30 a month. Children are the very heart of this community and schools strive to prepare them for the future. But educational resources and facilities are poor. At Proshyan School, one of the smallest in town, most of the building is boarded-up and derelict, used to store broken desks, chairs and shelves.

The Project
Proshyan School in Ashtarak has 180 students, grades 1 to 9, and about 30 teachers. The staff is as dedicated and the kids are as bright-eyed as any in the U.S. But the physical plant is terribly dilapidated, especially the school bathrooms where there is no running water—with all too imaginable ill effects on hygiene and sanitation. Colds run rampant and this year school closed for two weeks because of an influenza epidemic.

Due to infrastructure weakness, the whole town has water only from 8 AM to 9 AM and from 9 PM to 10 PM. This means that the children can’t wash their hands after using the facilities or keep clean generally, and they don’t know about basic hygiene since they can’t practice it without water.

Many people install water tanks and pumps in their homes so they can have water whenever they need it. This project aims to install them at my school, which has four bathrooms: two for boys and two for girls. Each facility has two non-flushing, stand-up toilets and one sink. So we need four 1,000-liter tanks in all. These are made of plastic and available in hardware stores in town, as are the pumps and piping. School staff, parents and friends will collaborate to install them, followed by hygiene workshops for the kids. These classes will include aseptic hand washing techniques and instruction on the transmission of cold and flu viruses

The Grant

When a friend told me about Water Charity in Crestline, CA, I contacted them and got this email back:


We would be happy to provide funds for your project in Armenia. Please apply for funding through the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP).

Averill Strasser
COO Water Charity
RPCV Bolivia (’66-’68)
Member, RPCVLA Board: NPCA Liaison

Then the Peace Corps had to approve the grant—small compared to others, a matter of just about $1,200. It all took time, but finally the funds showed up in my account about the time school started in September—always a big event in Armenia.

Once things calmed down our principal Samvel, my teaching counterpart Heghine and I went shopping at a local hardware store where they knew the staff and apparently got a good discount. First we priced everything we needed; some things had to be ordered. I made repeated visits to my ATM to get the money to pay. Then I waited.
One day about two weeks later I saw rows of plastic tanks in the hall at school. Delivery of material had begun, but not the work. Again I waited.

Throughout October and November I kept asking when the tanks would be installed. Soon, Samvel said. The master can only work on weekends.

I never met the master, but by the end of November I saw tanks propped just beneath the ceilings in our bathrooms.

As it’s turned out, the tanks not only provide running water to the sinks but they have made the toilets flush-able, a major fringe benefit for this project. Now our bathrooms are much cleaner and not as smelly as before.

Around the first of December I realized that it was time to start planning our Hygiene Workshops, aimed at teaching the importance of hand-washing and celebrating the advent of running water in our bathrooms. My English teacher counterparts helped, as did the school staff. The plan was as follows:

Day One: 5th and 6th forms in the computer lab where the kids saw a Power Point
and some excellent videos. Here’s my favorite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yT oii3-p-NI
They made posters about hand-washing for a contest. First place winners got a box of markers; their pictures will be mounted on walls near the bathrooms.

Then there was a demonstration using Glo Germ, a lotion I ordered from the U.S. that shows germs on hands under an ultraviolet light (not so easy to come by in Armenia). I had three students from 8th form do the demonstration; the kids were captivated.

Later that day I was pleased to see some 5th form boys barging out of the bathroom after having washed and dried their hands.

Day Two: Peace Corp Armenia’s medical officer Dr. Naira Gharakhanyan gave a Power Point presentation to 7th, 8th and 9th form kids. They asked lots of questions and stayed quiet, testifying to their interest. We saw more videos about germs and hand-washing, then did the Glo Germ demonstration.

Dr. Naira Gharakhanyan
Day Three: We capped things off by inviting Leigh Carter, the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, to come to Proshyan School to read about hand-washing to 3rd and 4th forms. I found a number of suitable books, including Wash Your Hands, by Tony Ross.

The kids sang a wash-your-hands song (to the tune of Row, Row, Row your Boat) and did some coloring on the germ and hand-washing theme.

Now some 150 children in Ashtarak, Armenia, know how washing your hands helps control germs and illness. We have running water, not to mention soap dispensers, electric hand dryers and flushable toilets.

And, hopefully, fewer germs.

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