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'Engaged Citizens': overseas volunteers honored for exemplary service.

Whether teaching digital literacy skills to teens in Nepal or renovating a cancer treatment center in La Paz, the six recipients of the 2013 Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad (SOSA) represent the "timeless American ideal of engaged citizenship," said Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns at the SOSA awards ceremony at Main State on Dec. 3.

"I live by the motto 'bloom where you are planted,'" said one of the winners, Foreign Service officer Elizabeth "Betsy" Orlando. Known as the "green queen" of the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Orlando set up recycling programs that converted wastepaper and plastic bottles into building materials, and worked with the Nigerian government to organize the planting of 2,000 trees for Earth Day. Orlando also provided local schools and orphanages with clean cook stoves, medical supplies, Internet connections, solar power and safe drinking water through means ranging from NGO partnerships to embassy bake sales.

In addition, Orlando founded a Toastmasters International chapter for young Nigerians and through it nourished their hunger for knowledge and opportunity with books on business skills, public speaking experience and contacts from her Rolodex. "These young people are the future of Nigeria," she said.

In Bangkok, award winner FSO Jameson DeBose focused his volunteerism on disadvantaged children from the Ban Kru Noi Child Development Center. The children visited the embassy on the consular section's Leadership Day to see that "diplomats are real people," he said, and consular staff helped him assemble donated bicycles. At the center, DeBose noticed the damaged roof of the kitchen, where 20,000 meals are prepared each year. He obtained a J. Kirby Simon Foundation grant to repair the roof and make other improvements.

DeBose said the more than 40 embassy volunteers involved in the child development center project all "took more away from this experience than we were able to give."

Another award winner, Marilyn Kott, spouse of the Defense attach at the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo, said, "You notice immediately how much people really appreciate our presence; we are constantly thanked for American friendship and generosity." She co-founded "Clothes for Kosovo," which has donated more than 1,200 pounds of clothes, plus furniture and food, to local charities.

She also taught English classes, assisted with a sustainable enterprise for rural single women and volunteered at an animal shelter. Within the U.S. Mission, Kott organized volunteers to renovate the children's play area and created a volunteer opportunities section in the post newsletter.

"I hope to bring the best of America with me every time I am with Kosovar friends--our optimism, desire to do things right, cultural tolerance and desire for knowledge," she said. "I appreciate that, in return, I learn something every time I'm with our hosts, who are extremely generous, warm people."

Another winner, Amber Boyd-Eiholzer, an office management specialist (OMS) at the U.S. Embassy in Amman, coordinated a series of events for Black History Month, culminating in the sold -out Black and White Ball. The ball grossed a record $10,000, and Boyd-Eiholzer identified a local NGO assisting Syrian refugees to receive a portion of the proceeds, to provide medical treatment for two girls with hearing problems.

She was also instrumental in the embassy's participation in the annual diplomatic holiday bazaar, which benefits the Al Hussein Society for the Habilitation/Rehabilitation of the Physically Challenged. "There's always something you can do for someone else," she said.

Another winner, Foreign Service spouse Gretel Patch, finds volunteering to be "about finding the right fit. With so many good causes in need, I choose something I am passionate about, something I believe in, something that can use my unique skills and abilities," she said. During her spouse's posting in Nepal, Patch volunteered with underprivileged local teens in the English Access Microscholarship Program.

"These kids have limited electricity at home, and most had never used the Internet beyond Facebook or YouTube," said Patch. "I wanted to connect them with the world and empower them to use technology to educate, innovate and inspire."

She taught digital literacy and traveled around Nepal to work with students and teachers at Access centers. "With just a little exposure, these students took off," she said. "Technology has opened some powerful opportunities for them." Patch has posted class materials, lesson plans and resources online for future instructors and students.

Another winner, Megan Gallardo, got involved in her volunteer project while working as an OMS at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, where a Locally Employed Staff member asked her to help collect blankets for a local cancer treatment clinic. "When I saw the clinic, I had a meltdown," said Gallardo, who lost both of her parents to cancer. The facility was filthy and, because it lacked radiation-shielding equipment, technicians "lifted the patient's body part and hid under the table" to escape exposure, she said.

Gallardo obtained a J. Kirby Simon grant and donations of lead aprons from Duke University and used furniture from the embassy's Marines. A team of U.S. and Bolivian volunteers cleaned and repaired the building, painted a mural and built a children's waiting area.

Gallardo also focused on a shelter serving girls rescued from sex trafficking, some as young as 13 or 14. She raised funds to build a security wall, organized a girls-only prom and career workshops and provided mentoring. She also volunteered with a local orphanage, nursing home and animal shelter, and encouraged others to get involved, too, either by giving their time or money.

Gallardo sees volunteerism as aiding public diplomacy. "Through the American spirit of volunteerism, I can work to change the negative perceptions some countries have about America and Americans," she said.

The SOSA program was initiated more than 20 years ago at the suggestion of Secretary of State James Baker and Susan Baker, and is administered by the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW), a nonprofit volunteer organization for Foreign Service family members. Each award winner receives a trip to Washington, a $2,500 check and a certificate signed by the Secretary of State. The program is supported by donations from former Secretaries of State, foundations and private donors. Winners are selected by representatives from AAFSW, the Department's regional bureaus and the Family Liaison Office. They judge nominees on the scope and reach of their volunteer activities, and the activities' sustainability, ingenuity and leadership.

Also at the awards ceremony, Foreign Service spouse Bob Castro received the Eleanor Dodson Tragen Award for creating a networking organization for Foreign Service spouses and partners, and Barbara Reioux received the Lesley Dorman Award for her service to AAFSW.

More information about the SOSA program and this year's winning activities is available online at

By Patricia Linderman, volunteer president, Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
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Author:Linderman, Patricia
Publication:State Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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