Walk of Life 2009 becomes testament to grassroots solidarity

Over 500 gather to support the life-saving activities of the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry

Glendale event is mirrored by donor recruits in Yerevan and Tehran

Los Angeles, October 8, 2009 – On Sunday, October 3, more than 500 supporters gathered at the Verdugo Park in Glendale, California, to participate in Walk of Life 2009, the much-anticipated walkathon of the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry (ABMDR).

In addition to taking part in the 5K/10K walk-run, supporters registered as bone marrow donors and helped raise funds for the life-saving mission of the ABMDR. The annual family event, which draws supporters from all age groups and walks of life, took place in a festive atmosphere that included live music, dance, and food.

“This is the type of event that makes our work all the more worthwhile,” said Dr. Frieda Jordan, president of the ABMDR Board of Directors. “When the Armenian community responds to the call for action in such big numbers, and does so with such a high level of enthusiasm and dedication, we have every reason to be optimistic about the continued viability of the ABMDR’s mission.”

Walk of Life 2009 was chaired by Armond Aghakhanian of the ABMDR’s Board of Advisors while Nectar Kalajian served as master of ceremonies. Together they introduced representatives of the event’s major sponsors, including the City of Glendale, Glendale Memorial Hospital, and Bank of America. All sponsors were honored with certificates of recognition during the walkathon.

“Every Armenian should join the registry,” said Glendale City Councilman Ara Najarian as he accepted a certificate from Dr. Jordan. His comments were echoed by Arpik Lalabekyan, senior vice president at the Burbank Main Branch of Bank of America. “The registry is such a great idea,” Lalabekyan said. “I’m so proud of Bank of America for becoming a sponsor. It’s time we did something like this.” Bank of American, a first-time ABMDR sponsor, supported Walk of Life 2009 by making an initial donation and subsequently matching funds that were raised by employees of the Burbank Main Branch.

Accepting certificates on behalf of Bank of America and Glendale Memorial Hospital were Zepiur Ashjian, a consumer-market vice-president with the bank, and Mark Myers, president of Glendale Memorial Hospital, respectively.

Youth power

Youth participation was a key factor in the large turnout and ultimate success of the walkathon. In the months leading up to the event, Mariette Keshishian and Dr. Evelyn Baghdassarian of the ABMDR coordinated teams of participating students from local public schools with the help of Daniel Baghdassarian, a student at La Canada High. Simultaneously, Dr. Vergine Madenlian, an ABMDR Board member, and Garbis Bartanian, a science teacher at Mesrobian School, educated students about stem cell transplantation and genetics through a series of special talks.

School teams participating in the walkathon included those of the Alex Pilibos, Chamlian, Mariamian-Davidian, Mesrobian, and Clark schools. In addition, over 20 teams representing private groups, community organizations, and businesses – among them the ARS Glendale Sepan Chapter, AGBU Glendale/Pasadena Scouts, Law Offices of Geragos and Geragos, and Softline Solutions – participated in the event, raising funds and encouraging supporters to register as bone marrow donors. (The full list of teams is posted at ABMDR.am). Two of those teams were dedicated to the memory of Aram Markosian, of Southfield, Michigan. After a long battle with leukemia and unable to find a bone marrow match for a stem cell transplant, Markosian passed away last month at the age of 24.

One of the 1,305 patients identified by the ABMDR as requiring such a transplant is Suren Ter-Abramyan, a 40-year-old leukemia patient who attended Walk of Life 2009. “The very existence of the ABMDR is a wonderful phenomenon,” Ter-Abramyan said. “We haven’t found a bone marrow match yet, but we won’t give up. And even after finding a match, I’ll continue to support the registry every way I can.”

Dr. Evelyn Baghdassarian, a pediatrician and an ABMDR Board Member, said that treating young cancer patients sparked the fire in her to join the mission of the registry. “In a short few years, the ABMDR has grown from obscurity to an organization that has fostered the emergence of a high degree of health consciousness and activism among Armenian communities across the world,” she said.

Dr. Baghdassarian added that while Armenians stand to gain the most from the ABMDR because of their unique genetic makeup, people of any nationality can also benefit. “This is the reason that the ABMDR is a member of the National Marrow Donor Program, a fact that considerably enlarges the pool of possible matches for everyone,” she explained.

Recruiting to save lives

The overarching goal of the ABMDR is to recruit donors so that Armenians suffering from life-threatening blood-related illnesses can have a chance for a transplant, through a potential match.

As with all ABMDR outreach events, donor recruitment was a key feature of Walk of Life 2009. Volunteer recruiters such as Fimi Mekhitarian and members of the Armenian Nurses Association recruited bone marrow donors throughout the event, working in booths especially set up for the purpose.

“First and foremost I would like to thank the Armenian Nurses Association, for always and unflinchingly supporting our recruitments,” Mekhitarian said. “Today’s event has been a great success because the registry’s mission seems to be resonating with the community as a whole and the youth in particular. The youth is what makes this endeavor strong and effective. It’s also why I think it’s crucial to continue building school teams for participation in ABMDR events.” Mekhitarian added that close to 90 donors were recruited during the walkathon.

Following the walk/run, the large crowd at Verdugo Park celebrated with music and dancing. The lineup of singers performing at the event included Joseph Krikorian, Ara Sahagian, Hratch Bogharian, Nersig Ispirian, and Sahag Sislian.

There were also a surprise appearances by Armenchik and Mihran. Addressing the hundreds of jubilant participants, the singers encouraged everyone to continue helping in the growth of the ABMDR. Subsequently Armenchik registered as a donor and made a donation to the ABMDR.

Unprecedented events in Yerevan and Tehran

Another watershed event took place on October 3 in Yerevan, where the ABMDR organized its largest outreach event to date.

The Armenian capital’s famed Lovers’ Park pulsated with a marathon benefit concert while ABMDR representatives interacted with hundreds of attendees, educating them about the work of the registry and recruiting stem cell donors.

Volunteer performers and artists lending their talents to the extraordinary, eight-hour celebration included Forsh, Michael Poghosyan, the Malkhas jazz band, and scores of others. The event netted 200 donor recruits.

Significant results were also achieved in Tehran. During the first week of October, Mariette Tounians, the registry’s representative in the Iranian capital, recruited 250 donors at the Avedissian Clinic, marking a turning point for the Armenian-Iranian community.

About the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry: Established in 1999, the ABMDR, a nonprofit organization, helps Armenians worldwide survive life-threatening blood-related illnesses by recruiting and matching donors to those requiring bone marrow stem cell transplants. To date, the registry has recruited over 15,000 donors across three continents, identified 1,305 patients, found 1,033 potential matches, and facilitated nine bone marrow transplants.