How does an opera singer, performing with renowned opera houses and theaters throughout Eurasia, curtail her career to establish a children’s arts and healing program in rural Armenia?

With no regrets–lots of love, smiles, and contentment.

Changing Lives; Being Changed

Professional opera singer Eka Horstka is changing hundreds of children’s lives and transforming herself through her self-styled “cultural NGO,” Artissimo. Horstka is part Ukrainian, part Armenian and has a contagious fervor when she discusses her NGO’s work with   the children.

“If you are walking and smiling today, you realize that someone in this world needs your smile to sustain their life. This has nothing to do with money. It has everything to do with being able to love and to give of yourself. You can have all the wealth in the world, but not able to give and smile,” says Horstka in her fast-paced talk.

Created in 2017, Artissimo (Art + issimo superlative form) uses art’s “curative, constructive, developing, and educational superpower” to help artistically talented children succeed. It also opens new horizons of acceptance for disabled children. With grants and donations, Horstka has built a safe space for children to gather, interact, create and “build value and transform through art.”

But funds are drying up.

100 Talent Beacons

During the 2015 100th anniversary observance of the Armenian Genocide, Horstka was the artistic director of the Naregatsi Art Institute. She set out to find 100 musical talents ages 5-15.  Her mission: form a children’s musical ensemble to celebrate the survival of the “talent gene” among genocide descendants.  In 1915, the Ottoman Turks massacred 1.5 million Armenians in an attempted annihilation and ethnic cleansing campaign. Horstka proved the genocide did not eradicate the Armenian talent gene. And that it is alive and thriving in present-day republic of Armenia.

Horstka selected 150 musically talented children, calling them the 100 Beacons. The ensemble performed at the 100th anniversary commemorative events. They lit the commemoration with “talent and art.” Among the 150 were children with various disabilities.

Children Without Borders

In 2018, as part of “kids for kids” campaign, the Beacons children’s ensemble traveled to Istanbul, Turkey. In a symbolic gesture, they joined their Armenian counterparts in Turkey — purportedly historic Armenian territory — oppressed of their cultural traditions. At the Kinaliada Island summer camp, the Beacons performed and provided music lessons to campers. By the end of the two weeks, the Armenian children in Turkey were fluent in ancient Armenian tunes and songs.

“We awakened the talented Armenian children of Istanbul through the children-for-children concerts and knowledge share,” explains Horstka excitedly. “And at the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Free, Independent Republic of Armenia, 25 talented children, born in post-Soviet, free Armenia performed at the celebrations,” she added.

Artissimo continues to support the musically talented children to widen their artistic horizons. For Horstka the children are master musicians of ancient Armenian musical instruments who will pass on their knowledge to the next generations.

Artissimo Expands into Gemstone

When Horstka learned of Armenia’s eastern Martuni region’s large population of disabled children, she decided to change the statistics. In 2017, Horstka opened the Voskeporik (gemstone) Aesthetic Development Center – the first rehabilitation center in the region.  With support from United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR, Armenia), Horstka created Art Opens Doors program integrating art projects with other services for the disabled children.

“UMCOR was the first organization to believe in us. They understand the importance of our program in Martuni–and the value of integrating disabled children into the greater society,” says Horstka. “Their support has made it possible for our program to thrive in the region.”

In the conservative rural region, disability is a major taboo. Parents often hide their disabled children away. They are shunned by the community, don’t take part in public events or attend local schools.

Among many challenges facing the rural economy is the lack of employment opportunities. To provide for their families, most men seek jobs abroad–mostly in Russia. Absent fathers and various other environmental issues result in premature births and children with various disabilities. With absentee fathers, mothers are primary caretakers of the disabled children.

Today, Voskeporik center serves 300 registered children and 90 are disabled children. The center offers classes and workshops in music, fine arts, theater, journalism, cinema, ethnic dance and music, healthy lifestyle, and environmental protection. Often Horstka invites professionals to give interactive workshops.

Project Continuous Love

This February to better serve the disabled children and their families, the Voskeporik center created Continuous Love Project. With support from Martuni Mayor’s office, U.S. Peace Corps, and individual benefactors, 90 disabled children in the region receive free services. For the first time, professionals address the plight of the region’s disabled children and their families–and children are integrated into the community.

Papier mâché Peace Angels, made by the disabled children, encourage hand movements and are sold to generate funds for Artissimo NGO.

Public awareness for disabled children’s care and nurture are drastically heightened. Integrating music and art projects with professional physical therapy helps children relax and stimulate muscle movement. Therapists also train mothers to improve childcare with more compassion.

However, lack of proper transport in the region keeps many families and their children deprived of the services. Horstka hopes to raise funds to purchase vans to transport and accommodate wheelchairs and other special needs children.

Mind Shift Among Parents of the Disabled

The Armenian government has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to “ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities.”  In November 2017, Armenia joined UNICEF’s global Children Takeover campaign dedicated to World Children’s Day. Yet, amongst the most marginalized groups in Armenia are children with disabilities.

Most disabled children are kept at home or put away in orphanages. Girls with disabilities are more likely to be in orphanages. And children in orphanages are not integrated into the local communities or public education system.

One of the most important things happening as a result of this center is the mentality shift,” says Peace Corps volunteer, Kelsey Rowe, who worked with Horstka in Martuni for a year. “Parents are now proud of their disabled children. They put aside the shame they felt. Parents are also more interactive with other parents–creating a much-needed social network for women.”

Rowe wrote and got a Peace Corps grant which various local community organizations and individual donors matched. Using the funds, Horstka set up a three-room physical therapy area with proper equipment and hired a full-time physical therapist.  From art therapy to horseback riding, to speech therapy the free services provide the children with much-needed stimulation.  Mothers spend more time with their children observing the therapists and take an active role in their child’s care.

Funds Are Drying Up

“We are people who value, share, and spread ideas and messages of human creativity, promoting the realization of universal human values,” says Horstka proudly. “I have a great army working with me to make all this possible.  The children, their parents, our dedicated volunteers and staff and specialists who give their whole self to ensure we continue to change the disabled children’s lives – and their parents.”

With an annual operating budget of $32,000, Horstka is determined to continue the center’s services, providing care for the disabled children and their families. Several children are candidates for corrective surgeries to improve their mobility. With commitments from various foundations to underwrite the surgeries, transportation remains a challenge.  The desperate poverty levels make it nearly impossible for families to travel to major city hospitals.  More importantly for critical post-surgery therapy.

“We need funds to purchase a special van to transport parents with children in wheelchairs. If we can raise the funds for the van, the regional government has agreed to provide the petrol,” explains Horstka.

For now, Horstka devotes herself full time to her NGO — putting her operatic career on hold. All the regrets wipe away, she says, “When I hug a child–the therapy is as much for me as for the children. Love has no borders or limits.”

Horstka has enough funds to last through the year. She has no funds to continue her services in 2020. “I’m confident we will continue our work because the parents trust us with their children. And that’s a treasure chest. It’s the greatest resource,” says Horstka as tears well in her eyes.