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Volunteerism abroad: exceptional individuals honored.

One provides counseling to Middle Eastern refugees in Turkey. Another founded an NGO to bring classical music to the "invisible people" of Kolkata.

What they have in common is that they are among the six winners of the 2016 Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad (SOSA). The awardees were chosen by representatives from the six geographic bureaus, the Family Liaison Office and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW), and recognize outstanding volunteer activities by U.S. government employees, family members and members of households serving overseas.

Department employee Ronit Kirshner Gerard and her husband Craig Gerard were co-winners for the AF Bureau. Assigned to Mission Senegal, the Gerards quickly reestablished ties with the village of Fougoulou, where Ronit had previously served as a Peace Corps volunteer. Often staying over in their "mud hut vacation home" after the eight-hour drive from Dakar, the Gerards renovated a two-room schoolhouse, established a year-round vegetable garden and improved hygiene practices. (The community had only 13 toilet facilities for 500 villagers.)

"Fougoulou is my family," said Ronit. "You do what you can for family."

The Gerards also spent countless hours volunteering within Mission Senegal, including as members of the employee association board and the Green Team, and organizing sports and recreational activities.

The NGO offering concerts, meanwhile, was the brainchild of concert pianist Jennifer Heemstra, holder of a master's degree in music from the Cleveland Institute of Music. She founded the Kolkata Classics, which offers concert series, student education programs and no-cost medical assistance fairs. To achieve this, she worked with India's artists, city officials, business leaders, hospitals and NGOs. Kolkata Classics empowers women, inspires underserved youth and builds cross-cultural bridges through western classical music.

"I want to make the invisible people of the city visible through music," Heemstra emphasizes.

Since December 2014, Heemstra has organized and performed in more than 60 concerts with university professors, Broadway stars and members of leading orchestras, reaching more than 55,000 people. The series' artists perform in settings that range from the Kolkata slums and red-light districts to ornate amphitheaters in the central city. Kolkata Classics also includes a health fair component, enlisting medical volunteers to provide free vaccines, health checks and screenings, and outreach services to women and children.

Another winner, Miriam Engstrom, put her talents to use while posted to Ankara with her husband. Engstrom, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and a master's degree in theater, runs a weekly counseling and stress relief group for Iraqi, Afghan and Iranian refugee women. Her group also has a lending library, home-based business development program and a scholarship fund. "For many refugees, living in a kind of post-traumatic limbo can feel empty and the experience dehumanizing," Engstrom observes. "It was my mission to help the women rediscover a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives."

Engstrom also organizes and stages theatrical events centered on women's rights and roles in society. Performances of her Women4women Productions have included a show called "Love Letters" performed by the British ambassador and his wife. The performances have had hundreds of guests and raised thousands of dollars for local women's charities. She also co-founded the group Refugees Online Learning English, which matches refugees with volunteers via Skype, providing language learning and supportive relationships.

NEA Bureau winner Bob Castro believes "Health is a universal, shared objective." Castro, who accompanied his wife on her assignment to Manama, brokered vital health industry partnerships for the American Mission Hospital of Bahrain and fostered socially responsible business ties across cultures. He did so by leveraging his speaking and convening roles at U.S.-Arab summits in Jeddah and New York, the Kellogg Innovation Network, local Rotary chapters and the American Chamber of Commerce.

"I wanted to sustain the tradition of American missionaries who risked their lives 120 years ago to bring health care to this region," he said.

Castro also created opportunities for international collaboration that will benefit Foreign Service and U.S. military family members, including new Chamber of Commerce fellowships that provide increased mission access to its members and partners. In addition, he coached Navy Youth Soccer and mentored referees for local basketball and soccer leagues.

Castro said he chose to work pro bono in order to do "all I could to promote bilateral and regional relations long term, utilizing my talents through public diplomacy."

Another winner, Farah Vinnedge, holds a master's degree in education and focused on education-related volunteerism. She has helped schools in Brasilia develop ESL programs, taught English herself, guided teachers in curriculum development, organized library materials and helped students apply for scholarships. "Having been raised in a very poor country with strict cultural restrictions towards education for young women, I fought relentlessly to be educated and realized that no child should have to struggle this hard to obtain the most basic necessity in life," Vinnedge explained.

Her Chairs for Schools project provided donated desks and chairs to schools and day care centers in impoverished neighborhoods. She also developed a community outreach program that matched volunteers from the private international school with students in underprivileged schools in Brasilia. "It's very moving to be able to see the students and children flourish in their environment, and to think that I made a positive impact in their pursuit of an education makes all the difference in the world for me," Vinnedge reported.

Winner Sofia Blake advised potential volunteers to act quickly, since significant volunteer projects can be hampered by one's time-limited assignment abroad. During her assignment in Indonesia, Blake set up a grant program enabling local women leaders to carry out one-year community projects. The projects included a new bridge, a village kindergarten and a program to buy recyclables. Blake also set up a mentorship-education program, designed workshops and recruited more than 100 mentors for Indonesian undergraduate and graduate students seeking to study in the United States. Through peer-to-peer mentoring, "many Indonesian women discovered peers and support that will be behind them for years to come," she observed.

More generally, she sees volunteering as "the most powerful way to connect to a place and its people; the only way to make a place home."

The SOSA Award was established in 1990 by then Secretary of State James Baker and his wife, Susan Baker, along with AAFSW, the nonprofit volunteer organization for the Foreign Service community.

At the Nov. 10 ceremony, Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom and AAFSW President Dr. Joanna Athanasopoulos Owen presented the SOSA awards. The ceremony also recognized Lesley Dorman, who passed away this year and had inspired the creation of the Family Liaison Office. The Dorman Award went to June Carmichael for service to AAFSW, while Cindy Jones received the Champions of Eligible Family Member Career Enhancement Award for her achievements at Embassy Budapest. The Eleanor Dodson Tragen Award was given by DACOR to Leah Evans for her support of the Foreign Service community, including as editor of the book "Raising Kids in the Foreign Service."

To nominate an outstanding volunteer in 2017, contact

By Patricia Linderman, president emerita, Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
COPYRIGHT 2017 U.S. Department of State
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Author:Linderman, Patricia
Publication:State Magazine
Article Type:Awards list
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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