UPSHIFT - Sustainable impact for young people living in Armenia

Adolescents like Vardan are proactively searching for a chance to develop their potential and genuine commitment, and it is in everyone’s interest to lend a helping hand

Fernando Rejon Sanchez
Gyumriver team after setting up the net in the river.
UNICEF Armenia/2019/Rejon Sanchez
31 July 2019

Waterproof boots on, working tools at hand and a great deal of enthusiasm. Vardan is ready to walk in the water to install the first trash net ever seen in the Gyumri river.

Vardan is part of the first cohort of adolescents who have joined UPSHIFT Armenia, a program on youth empowerment and social entrepreneurship, launched by UNICEF Armenia in coordination with the local organization “Youth Initiative Centre.” Vardan’s team decided to address an issue, which had been previously overlooked over generations. Even though the Gyumri river is a valuable element of the town’s natural heritage, it has been increasingly contaminated by the waste local neighbors throw on a regular basis. Vardan’s team decided to take on the challenge, organize various river clean-up days, and eventually install two nets, which collect all the trash flowing down along the river. At first glance, one may think environmental issues are not given enough importance compared to other more pressing matters. Nevertheless, Vardan and the rest of his team have demonstrated that the young people are pushing for a new agenda, shedding light on a new range of issues and, above all, proposing innovative solutions. UPSHIFT has elevated those existing concerns and provided the necessary environment to trigger an organized action.

Gyumriver team trying to set up a net for the river.
UNICEF Armenia/2019/Publicis

It is difficult to describe what leadership theoretically entails. It is much easier to do so when one sees those attributes embodied in one leader around you. Vardan does not only have a clear vision about the issues that surround him, but he also has the determination to engage in their solution. “UPSHIFT has allowed me to realize our power. At first, no one believed in our project. They thought that the river was too dirty, worthless of any attention and that our net would not work out. But we’ve proven that our project can succeed, and our river can be cleaner and well-maintained.” 

Not only has the team settled the net but, after contacting the Gyumri municipality, local authorities have committed to collect the trash from the net twice a week. The team’s project came about as an innovative idea, but these determined adolescents have also ensured its long-term sustainability by engaging other stake-holders. They are indeed a great example of successful social entrepreneurship.

A river with set up net and the first plastic bottle that fall into the net.
UNICEF Armenia/2019/Rejon Sanches

Gyumri is well-known for being the cultural heart of Armenia and home for people who have endured tragic events. Nevertheless, Gyumri is also an example of overcoming and resilience and, indeed, Vardan’s words transmit immense hope and determination. He describes how UPSHIFT has also helped him to come to terms with his future career plans. He is determined to study urban planning and come back to Gyumri to engage in the development of his town. He speaks proudly about the great past of Gyumri and is able to clearly identify its opportunities for the future: “I don’t think that our public institutions take full advantage of Gyumri’s potential. First of all, Gyumri has a very valuable architecture, which is not comparable to any other town in Armenia. Our tourism sector should be promoted but we also need to make sure our city is cleaner and more appealing for upcoming tourists.” His concrete vision of Gyumri may not be coincidental as we may be witnesses to the growth of the future Mayor of the town, an idea that ’s roaming around Vardan’s mind.

UPSHIFT is ultimately a compromise between the participants’ ideas and their application in reality. That is how Vardan views it. He explains that “young people believe in utopian ideas and have the ability of thinking more idealistically then their parents.”

Vardan is sitting near the river and thinking.
UNICEF Armenia/2019/Rejon Sanchez

UPSHIFT has taught Vardan that utopian ideas entail hard work, discipline and many skills in order to realize them.

UPSHIFT has equipped him with a new set of skills he had not explored before: from being able to model technical plans, improving his communication skills to leading a large group of volunteers.

Vardan and his team with confidence are smiling to the camera after finishing the work.
UNICEF Armenia/2019/Rejon Sanchez

Asked about the reason why UPSHIFT initially sparked his curiosity, Vardan responds that he had too much free time and was looking for new projects to get engaged in. The young people of Armenia do not only deserve a bright future, but they should also be given a real chance to make that future a reality for themselves. UPSHIFT Armenia has elevated their voices, allowed them to develop new skills and empowered them to claim a crucial role to play in their communities.

Adolescents like Vardan are proactively searching for a chance to develop their potential and genuine commitment, and it is in everyone’s interest to lend a helping hand.