A Library for Stepanavan
by Jacqueline Hartling Stolze
Stepanavan, Armenia, is a city facing many challenges and hardships.
In 1988, an earthquake hit northwestern Armenia, killing several hundred people in Stepanavan and destroying hundreds of homes. Some 200 families still live in temporary shipping containers instead of houses. The charred remains of many buildings, including the former city hall, still stand unrepaired 15 years later.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, nearly 20,000 people-40 percent of Stepanavan's population-emigrated. Winter energy shortages and war with Azerbaijan in the early '90s have led to more population losses.
"These events have left a once vibrant community with some very deep psychological scars," says Ted Massey '00, a Peace Corps volunteer in Stepanavan and one of two recipients of Grinnell's 2003 Wall Service Award.
Ted will use the $20,000 award to construct and furnish a community resource center in Stepanavan, complete with a seminar room for community meetings, computers with Internet access, an updated database of Armenian legal and business information, a professional resource library, and a library of English-language fiction for local students.
Ted was able to look beyond the very real need for new homes and infrastructure in Stepanavan to see another basic necessity in short supply-information. "While their survival does not depend on access to timely and accurate information ... it does broaden and improve their prospects for a better future," Ted says.
"I think this project addresses a need that is not an immediate priority for local government or international organizations doing work in the area," he adds.
Another problem Ted has seen in Stepanavan is the persistence of the Soviet-era mentality that expects all direction to come from above. "Real leadership and initiative are sorely lacking in small Armenian communities," he says. "I hope that this project will promote cooperation among community groups in Stepanavan.
"Ideally, this project will provide these groups with tools that will help them develop the confidence they need to initiate grassroots change in their community," Ted explains.
Currently, Ted is involved in every aspect of the project, from monitoring construction, to procurement of supplies, to public relations. "My highest priority right now, though, is to get the NGO [non-governmental organization] thinking about programs we can hold after the center is built. A year from now, my Peace Crops service will be wrapping up, and I hope that I can leave assured that the center and its resources will be actively used."
Ted is grateful for the opportunities the Wall Service Award has presented to Stepanavan. "Our project is already generating some much-needed enthusiasm in the community," he says.