Tough childhood inspired Las Vegas woman to help others

Updated April 3, 2018 - 11:00 am

Vegas Voices is a weekly series featuring notable Las Vegans.

Armena Mnatsakanyan knows what it’s like to go without.

Growing up in Yerevan, Armenia, she remembers standing in daily bread lines and climbing the stairs from her ninth-floor apartment to visit a neighbor on the ground floor — the only floor in the building that had running water — to fill a bucket up to 10 times each day.

For several years beginning in 1988, she and her family got by on 30 minutes of electricity a day.

“It was really tough,” recalls Mnatsakanyan, 43. “I wanted to grow up and help someone else.”

She’s helped thousands upon thousands of “someone elses,” having served as the executive director of Lutheran Social Services of Nevada since 2008.

That number will grow even higher with the nonprofit’s new $3.75 million headquarters, which includes an education kitchen for clients to learn how to cook healthy meals, kiosks for clients to order from the digital food pantry and a tranquility garden.

The building also is home to the service organizations Nevada Homeless Alliance, Multicultural Wellness West and the Just One Project.

An open house and dedication are scheduled from 2 to 5 p.m. Thursday at 4323 Boulder Highway.

“People a lot of times confuse us with a church,” Mnatsakanyan says. “We are proud to be working with different churches in our town. … But we serve everyone and anyone without asking any questions about their religion. A lot of people ask me if we only serve Lutherans. I don’t even know if we have one Lutheran client, because we don’t ask questions about that.”

Review-Journal: You were born in Armenia in 1975 and lived there until you came to study at the University of Delaware in 1998. It wasn’t exactly a great time to be in Armenia, was it?

Mnatsakanyan: Very rough times. Very rough times, when I was a teenager especially. … The Soviet Union collapsing. Armenia becoming independent, and that was very difficult. An earthquake that killed 45,000 people.

What was it like growing up during all that?

I was 13 years old when everything started kind of collapsing around us. I was a teenager, but because such horrific events were taking place, I started feeling like I was 50, 60 years old. I felt like I was more mature than 13, because I had to deal with very difficult circumstances, like attending and organizing political events, going to different hospitals to help out the kids and the people who were affected by the earthquake. … I’ve seen a lot. It was tough.

Do you think growing up in those circumstances helped shape your desire to help others in need?

That is exactly what happened. … My desire was really to become an author. But especially the earthquake and the war (with Azerbaijan), that really entirely changed what I wanted. I still was very passionate about my creative side. I really wanted to write. But then I thought that I actually had to help others, physically, whatever I could do.

You’re fluent in Armenian and Russian, but how did you learn English?

What I had to do, every single day after school, I took this big dictionary — I still keep it, it’s a very large dictionary — and I would read that. I practically ate that dictionary for several years.

I have to ask, does it bother you that, if the average person can even name an Armenian-American, they’ll almost always pick a Kardashian?

I don’t like saying negative things about people, but it does bother me, very much. … A lot of people when they know I’m Armenian, they’re, like, “Oh, Kardashians!” I’m, like, “Here we go again.”

Can you talk a little about Lutheran social services and its mission?

Lutheran Social Services of Nevada is a small grass-roots organization, which means we directly communicate and work for the people who are in need. And we see thousands and thousands of stories that are really heartbreaking every single day of the week, and we have to take care of that. The actual mission of our agency is to express the love of Christ by serving and caring for people in need. That mission allows us the opportunity to serve anyone who is in financial need, nutrition need, employment need.

And what does the new building and campus (which also includes a Boys and Girls Club and an affordable-housing apartment complex built by Nevada HAND) mean for you and the community?

I wanted to have a comprehensive services center. I wanted a one-stop shop. … Our clients, the majority of them either walk, ride bicycles or take buses. Imagine they have to take two buses to get to LSSN and we have to say, “Sorry, we don’t have this.” … LSSN, Boys and Girls Club and Nevada HAND, we all are one community. It is beautiful. They’ve done a beautiful job. So it’s several buildings here. Big space. One community. One neighborhood.

Getting to know: Armena Mnatsakanyan

Favorite thing about living in Las Vegas: “The people. Very kind.” In 2015, Mnatsakanyan and her then 4-year-old son were involved in a wreck that broke a disc in her spine. “Fifteen, 20 strangers immediately left everything they were doing, ran toward me. They started keeping my son busy so he wouldn’t stress out. They were taking care of me before the police and everyone else arrived.”

Last book you read: “The Bible. Almost daily.”

Favorite thing to watch on TV: “I mostly watch news. The little one watches cartoons all day long, and I have to watch with him.”

Hobbies: “I don’t have a life outside of LSSN, to tell you the truth. … I don’t do anything else. I honestly don’t even have time to go work out, which I have to because of my spine injury.”

If you had 24 hours free to do anything you wanted: “I’ve thought about it so many times. I want to go somewhere which has water and mountains. No one with me. Just me, my brain and no one else. And I just want to enjoy things without any stress.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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