Congratulations to the 2016 SOSA Winners

Ronit and Craig Gerard, AF SOSA Winners

Team Gerard consists of USAID officer Ronit and her husband Craig, who works for Public Affairs in an Expanded Professional Associates Program position. Over the past three years Team Gerard willingly served their community in many roles, with little fanfare or appreciation in return. However, their work in Ronit’s former Peace Corps village is by far the most impressionable. They put together a fundraiser with the support of Deposit a Gift, so with more than $6000 of capital, bigger changes could be made. The focus was on hygiene, nutrition, and education. They started with a survey so their efforts would focus on what the community wanted. They analyzed the results and researched the causes behind the roadblocks that kept the village from moving forward. Armed with proper knowledge, they developed a three prong plan. For 516 villagers, there were only 16 toilets. Team Gerard provided cement and rebar and each compound dug the hole and built its own toilet. After using the toilet, villagers clean hands using newly-built Tippy Tap stations. The people of Fougoulou eat a similar diet every single day:  rice, oil, pounded corn, peanuts, maybe a scrawny chicken… and few vegetables. Yet the climate is well suited for year-round gardening. They worked with the village to build a fenced-in community garden with a dedicated well. Each compound now has a small plot in which to grow vegetables, which increases the vitamin intake, thus giving adults more energy for farming other crops and the kids more sustained energy for learning in school. In the past 14 years, the two-room schoolhouse has fallen into disrepair. They worked with a local contractor to get the school back up to a functioning level, repairing the foundation of the school, building a new fence, new desks and tables, and brining teaching materials.Team Gerard has been instrumental in improving hygiene, nutrition and educational foundations for this small village in rural Senegal.

Sofia Blake, EAP SOSA Winner

Working entirely without compensation, staff or a budget, Sofia Blake conceived and executed a 12-month project to empower women community leaders in Indonesia, focusing on six hand- picked grass-roots women leaders working in the fields of environment, social entrepreneurship, health, social media, and education.

She attended college in New York and Brown University, followed by a Master’s Degree at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. Sofia took the initiative to leverage her own educational experience to create a mentorship program from scratch for the U.S. government’s Education USA program in Indonesia. Sofia developed an internship initiative for Georgetown University undergraduate and graduate students to come to Indonesia for the summer to undertake eight- week volunteer stints on entrepreneurship, climate change, and early childhood education with a well-respected Indonesian non-government organization called Rumah Perubahan (House of Change).

Miriam Engstrom, EUR SOSA Winner

Ms. Engstrom runs a theatre program, a weekly counseling session for refugee women, and recently established a free tutoring program. Her weekly counseling and stress-relief group for Iraqi, Afghan and Iranian refugee women has helped some of those women overcome clinical depression, seek adequate medical care for their children, get access to Turkish lessons, and much more. Miriam also helps the refugees build sustainable home-based businesses using their knitting skills and other artistic abilities.  Through book donations, she established a book-lending library for refugees in their neighborhood. 

In addition to her counseling group, every year, for the past three years Miriam has organized and staged the performance of multiple theatrical events, all of which are performed by volunteers (the majority are family members of the Embassy).  All the performances are themed around women, their rights and roles in society.  Over her three years in Turkey, Miriam has planned over 10 performances, each to hundreds of guests – and raised thousands of dollars for local women’s charities.

Miriam also established the group: ROLE – Refugees Online Learning English.  ROLE is an English tutorial program for refugees who want to practice their English via SKYPE with native English speaking volunteers.  

Bob Castro, NEA SOSA Winner

Robert “Bob” Castro’s volunteer activities aimed at our host country and his service to thebroader Embassy Manama community have boosted morale and deepened business and cultural ties between the United States and Bahrain.Bob forged a partnership between the American Mission Hospital with several U.S. health care institutions, by establishing a new Fellowship program.  

Bob also leveraged his voluntary service on the Host Committee for the Kellogg Innovation Network (KIN) at Northwestern University to identify half a dozen prominent Bahrainis to be invited as delegates at the annual KIN Global Dialogues in Miami. Bob also volunteered to serve as an advisor to the American Chamber of Commerce in Bahrain during its reboot phase, helping develop strategic membership growth while personally leading two seminars (Intellectual Property and Sustainability) with high-profile panelists in front of large audiences and the media. Bob volunteered his time with two local Rotary chapters, although not a member, keynoting events, connecting them with other Rotarians and resources in the United States, while mentoring young Bahrainis through local Rotary chapter introductions to University College of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic. Bob also helped establish a local alumni network of his own alma mater (Georgetown Univ.) while making local connections on behalf of other American colleges. Leadership of the Bahrain Society of Engineers — a prominent force for social change in Bahrain — turned to Bob for advice in their promotion of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Bob in turn paved the way for Embassy EFMs with engineering backgrounds to connect with the Society. Bob helped represent the American community at countless public events with arts, cultural, and civic organizations throughout Bahrain. He connected with local charities, women’s and children’s societies, sports groups, art galleries, and Ministry of Culture entities.

Bob’s steadfast leadership within the greater Mission community also were invaluable. He brokered a reciprocal agreement between DACOR and Bahrain’s most elite private club for the benefit of Foreign Service officers and their family members, giving them cost-effective means of connecting professionally and personally with Bahrain’s most influential society, business, and cultural leaders. As an active AAFSW member, Bob ensured our community utilized AAFSW resources. He voluntarily led PROPS (Professional Partners & Spouses of the Foreign Service), a global organization he founded across all agencies that now counts its membership over 350 individual EFMs and MOHs, and expanded the group’s virtual, peer-to- peer network of self-helpers from across career trajectories. Bob mentored members of the Embassy community, especially during gaps in CLO coverage, and liaised on behalf of the Mission with Jordan-based
Global Employment Advisor (GEA) for NEA region. Bob envisioned, advocated, and helped implement a new fellowship for EFMs and U.S. military spouses, who will intern with the American Chamber of Commerce in Bahrain on special projects. Bob’s innovative model has prompted AmCham to tap into the immense, diverse talents of our spouses, while allowing EFMs to benefit from AmCham’s growing professional network and members-only events.\

Jennifer Heemstra, SCA SOSA Winner

Jennifer Heemstra has achieved much in expanding consulate outreach and connection with the Kolkata community, while promoting our anti-Trafficking in Persons and Health initiatives to underserved populations. Working with a group of local volunteers and the consulate community, Jennifer has created, managed, obtained funding and has been the spokeswoman for a broad-reaching social outreach program and concert series. Since December 2014, Jennifer has organized and performed in forty-two (42) concerts for more than 50,000 persons. She hasbrought international artists, university professors and Broadway singers to Kolkata to showcase Western classical music, while championing causes such as anti -Trafficking in Persons and social integration of Indians of all castes (classes). Breaking down the borders of caste, she has connected with both children and adults across socio-economic levels, ranging from the wealthy elite to the victims of trafficking residing in the slums of Kolkata. Through her sponsors she has bussed in children from orphanages, NGOs operating in red-light district, and schools for the blind to sit right next to private-school students for educational, interactive and horizon-broadening concerts. At these events, Jennifer and her volunteers educate the children about classical music and expose them to Western culture and U.S. values, while they experience the inspiring beauty of music. Not being content with sharing Western music, Jennifer has started a health services fair and concert for women and children of the trafficked community. Through these fairs, the underprivileged are vaccinated and receive basic health services and education in sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), giving the next generation of those trapped in prostitution the health services they need and inspiration they crave to have a better life.

Farah Vinnedge, WHA SOSA Winner

Upon arriving in Brazil, Farah Vinnedge immediately directed her boundless energy and relentless determination to improve literacy awareness. She visited the Crèches (make shift daycare centers) in the favelas (squatting areas) of Brasilia, and became keenly aware of how limited their resources were. The children of the garbage collectors were sitting on the cold, hard floors with limited school supplies, yet they displayed such enthusiasm to learn, draw, write, or even sing. Her response was immediate, and her “Chairs for Schools” project took off within days. She took matters into her own hands and immediately contacted affluent schools to donate their excess desk/chair combos to the impoverished schools in the slum neighborhood Farah’s quest for fostering literacy continued as she leveraged every opportunity to help schools develop programs in the area of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). She dedicated her time every day at a public language school in Brasilia to teach eight ESL classes at various levels.

Using her MA in Education -ESL she helped guide the Brazilian teachers develop the ESL curriculum, and use book project strategies to teach ESL as a visual method. Whenever she was not teaching, she spent countless hours in the library, organizing English books and making herself available to the students who needed to practice English to help with interviews, and write their resumes for programs such as Brasilia without Borders and Science without Borders – many of whom were successful with the application process and went on to receive scholarships from universities such as Arizona State and George Washington universities in the United States.

School officials at the international school asked her to help them develop a community outreach program where students from the private international school could be directly involved with assessing specific needs of underprivileged schools and directly provide tutoring and guidance. She developed the “Community Connections” program to inform the more fortunate students on the importance of volunteering and helping out fellow students in less fortunate circumstances. The program was an immediate success and the students from various grade were able to partner with local schools.