By Lori Forte Harnick
Special to the Reporter
Natasha Babayan was stunned by the devastation she witnessed when she traveled to her parents’ hometown of Gyumri, Armenia. The Bellevue teen, and first-generation American, says her experience in the summer of 2012 was an “aha moment” that inspired her to serve others, both at home and abroad.
“I was amazed at how impoverished it was,” she says. “Houses made out of steel scraps, ceilings that leak when it rains, having to fetch water from a well – all because of an earthquake that happened over 20 years ago. They don’t have enough money to rebuild.”
Natasha – who comes from a single-parent household without much money – readily admits that she herself has received community support. She discovered the Bellevue Boys & Girls Club Teen Center during her junior year at Sammamish High School, finding it a welcoming reprieve from the cliques of high school, and full of adult and peer mentors always happy to see her.
There she received help with homework and took an SAT preparation class she couldn’t otherwise afford. And thanks to the inspiration she found during that 2012 trip to Armenia, Natasha became especially interested in community service projects run by kids at the club. Among her many volunteer efforts, she helped raise money to build schools in impoverished corners of the world and reconstruct communities in the Philippines ravaged by an earthquake not unlike the one that struck her parents’ home.
Natasha’s journey of public service last month landed her on stage at Seattle’s Key Arena in front of 15,000 of her peers, where she represented Microsoft at We Day, an inspirational event from nonprofit Free The Children that empowers a generation of young people to volunteer and participate in social activism at home and overseas. Celebrities, professional athletes and youth activists appear at these events to cheer young people for their local and global service projects that earned them a ticket to We Day – and encourage them to continue serving others.
Free The Children built a program that reaches hundreds of thousands of young people, and through a three-year sponsorship from Microsoft, we joined forces to extend their reach – to help the increasing number of young people who ask, “What can I do to help?” Having seen firsthand the myriad of ways that technology has made the world a better place, I encourage young people to view technology as a powerful tool to help them answer that question. We created the Microsoft YouthSpark initiative to empower 300 million young people with opportunities for education, employment, and entrepreneurship to do just that.
Natasha, who is also an apprentice in Microsoft’s marketing department, embodies what it is like to be a young person whose imagination is captured by the power of technology. “It’s opened my eyes to the technological resources that are available,” she says. Concerned about the availability of clean, fresh water in impoverished parts of the world, she has started to dream about how devices and software might be used to pump it where it’s needed.
Through our three-year commitment to bring We Day to both Washington state and California, that’s exactly the kind of dreaming we hope to inspire. The realization that young people—and the rest of us—have the power to change the world for the better. That’s what We Day, and Microsoft YouthSpark, is all about.
Lori Forte Harnick is Microsoft’s general manager for citizenship and public affairs. She lives in Sammamish.