I was a guest at the 2010 Vanetzi social evening, where I had a brief encounter with an unfamiliar face across the room. Who was that tall not traditionally Armenian-looking woman? Fortunately I was soon introduced to Vanetzi Cynthia Reimers Erickson, who grew up on a farm near Wimbledon, N.D., but now resides in Roseville, Minn. She may not have looked Armenian but she proudly bears her Armenian blood as surely, if not more so, than most 100-percent Hyes.
She is the kind of person you quickly label with the words noble, humanitarian, exemplary, making a difference.
When we say “diasporan,” the shoe really fits for Reimers-Erickson. Her Armenian Genocide survivor grandparents married in Cuba, then settled in North Dakota, where her mother, Viola Satenig Abrahamian, was born, then wed to Lawrence Reimers.
Erickson was strongly influenced by her grandmother Khashkhatoun (Bargamian) Abrahamian from Palu. Her grandfather Melkon was from Van. She fondly remembers her grandmother as a sweet, gentle, and kind woman who taught her how to knit and crochet, who cooked without measuring ingredients. “I think grandma was the one who made me want to visit Armenia one day,” she says.
Grandma Abrahamian would certainly be proud to know her granddaughter is planning another return trip to the villages of Armenia with her team of volunteers to build houses for poor Armenians still living in sub-standard housing since the 1988 earthquake and collapse of the Soviet Union. “It is always a delight for me to introduce Armenia to others and to help them experience the unmatched hospitality of Armenia and its people.”
Erickson is a medical technologist and for over 30 years has belonged to the Armenian Cultural Organization (ACOM) of St. Paul, Minn., where she is also a member of the folk dance group known as the Armenian Dance Ensemble of Minnesota. They’ve performed at St. Paul’s Festival of Nations and other events, spreading the word about Armenian culture.
Her almost annual trips—since 2004—to Armenia began when she met Peace Crop Armenia worker Kristi Rendahl; both had joined the Fuller Center for Housing, founded by Millard Fuller offering interest free loans.
Through volunteer work and donations of both money and materials, the Fuller Center builds and rehabilitates houses with the help of homeowners. The homes are sold to partner families at no profit, and are financed with affordable, no-interest loans. The homeowners’ monthly mortgage payments are used to build more Fuller Center homes. Homeowners invest hundreds of hours of their own labor, sweat equity, into building their home. It’s a win-win.
The woman with a huge heart says, “I have plenty of room on my team for people interested in volunteering and traveling the back roads, not just the tourist sites, so that the fabric of Armenian society is strengthened. It’s a way to make a difference in the lives of hard-working, poor Armenians.”
“Having a healthy stable environment gives the families self-esteem and the security needed to sink their roots deep into the land of Armenia and to remain as productive citizens.”
What motivates Erickson? “I love meeting the families we help. I love the expressions on their faces when we work with them. Their hospitality shines brilliantly and they are so grateful for people who are willing to work and help others get a hand up. They go from weariness from these Americans to admiration when the work we accomplish exceeds their hopes, or even when we show up on a rainy day to sling buckets of cement and get muddy.”
Erickson and crew are truly American ambassadors showing others that America is not just the politicians they see on TV or a country of spoiled actors or rich kids. “We are people who cherish our friends and can laugh with each other at our own silliness. We are not afraid to get dirty and tired while helping them.”
Erickson enjoys showing Armenia to Americans, especially to those who have never even heard of Armenia. “They leave Armenia in total awe of the culture and history of the country and people. They leave thinking that such a wonderful jewel was so previously unknown to them.”
She adds, “Plus there’s always the memory of my sweet grandmother who would really be pleased that her granddaughter, from North Dakota no less, is doing this for her countrymen and women’s descendants.”
This dedication to Armenian roots is the mystery that has not been solved. It seemingly beats in the heart of lions, warriors like Cynthia Reimers Erickson.
The challenge: Why would comfortable, well-heeled, youthful, retired Americans not get up off their duffs and take an opportunity to pay back some of their good fortune here to help their countrymen over there? Costs are expected to be $1,500-$1,700, plus airfare.
Available 2013 Armenian Global Builders trips are scheduled for these dates:
June 16-30: The lush northern region of Vanadzor
Aug. 2-15: The capital city of Yerevan
Aug. 28 to Sept. 7: The capital city of Yerevan
To learn more about these programs or to volunteer, visit www.fullercenterarmenia.org/home or e-mail [email protected]
It is an honor and pleasure to keep tabs on Cynthia Erickson, the Vanetzi who has danced into the hearts of Armenian Weekly readers through her heroic deeds in the Homeland. Paree jamportoutioun, Cynthia.