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“Empowering the Community: The Transformative Impact of Volunteerism and Diplomacy” – SOSA 2023

By Celine Ford, President, AAFSW

AAFSW SOSA Committee, 2023 Awardees with Evan Ryan (center), the spouse of Secretary Blinken.

On November 29, 2023, the Associates of the Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) held the 2023 Secretary of State Awards for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad (SOSA) ceremony at the Benjamin Franklin Room of the Harry S. Truman Building in Washington, D.C. The families and friends travel from far away to support the winners of the 2023 SOSA, the Champions of Career Enhancement for Eligible Family Members Award (CCE-EFM), the Leslie Dorman Award and the Eleanor Dodson Tragen Award winners.

Secretary Blinken shared his remarks virtually, and Evan Ryan, his spouse, joined AAFSW to celebrate the 2023 SOSA awardees. Director General Ambassador Bernicat led the ceremony as the guest of honor, and Ambassador Patrick F. Kennedy was also in attendance. Their presence added to the significance of this event.

SOSA was established in 1990 as a partnership between the Department of State and AAFSW with the direct encouragement and support of then Secretary James A. Baker and his wife, Susan. The award was created to recognize volunteer accomplishments of the Foreign Service (FS) community overseas. AAFSW has managed the SOSA award program since its inception, and funding for the award includes donations from former Secretaries of State, including annual support from James and Susan Baker, the Green Family Foundation headed by former Ambassador Steven J. Green, and AAFSW members. 

Moises Mendoza and Jose Dorce, AAFSW’s SOSA Co-Chairs, took charge of the ceremony, a tribute to those remarkable individuals who have shown exceptional dedication and made significant contributions to their communities through their spirit of voluntarism and entrepreneurship, both domestically and internationally.

Since 1990, AAFSW has selected volunteer projects with the help of DOS regional bureaus and GCLO, privileging projects that can address these challenges and positively impact their communities. The SOSA Committee considers key factors like security, economic conditions, technological transformation, and potential reputational risks. The Committee prioritizes projects that help underserved populations and work in challenging contexts. A project’s ability to address these challenges and make a positive impact is a critical factor in its selection.

The 2023 Winners Are

  1. George Cornick from the Bureau of African Affairs (AF) for his expansive volunteerism efforts in Uganda, which included mentoring youth while teaching them life skills, job interview techniques, and even helping to form a step dancing group. Cornick also obtained grant funding from the J. Kirby Simon Trust to benefit the Bless a Child Foundation, which focuses on the needs of pediatric cancer patients. 
  2. Robert Gudenkauf and Kimberly Gudenkauf from the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) for their efforts to help the local animal population in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. They created a network of more than eighty volunteers, connected organizations in Mongolia and abroad, and saved the lives of many animals in Ulaanbaatar. The Gudenkaufs have appeared on television and in print and online media, and they have met with advocacy groups and high-ranking government officials to promote the animal shelters and a bill that would create Mongolia’s first animal rights law.
  3. Jerry Case from the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (EUR) for starting the Good Bike Project, refurbishing used bicycles for Ukrainian refugees. The project has helped refugees access education, employment, and healthcare and provided a sense of community and belonging. Case has also organized multiple clothing, book, and toy drives for refugees.
  4. Mandy Brown from the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) for teaching women and children new skills and helping them develop their creative abilities. She has organized sewing, embroidery, and other crafts workshops and provided mentorship and guidance to women entrepreneurs.
  5. William “Ed” O’Bryan and Alesia Krupenikava from the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA), Spouses team William “Ed” O’Bryan and Alesia Krupenikava helped break barriers for women and girls in Turkmenistan through their work with the U.S.-based nonprofit, Technovation Girls, helping it to launch its program across the country. 
  6. Daniela Garcia (San Salvador, El Salvador) from the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA), since 2021, EFM Daniela Garcia has been the driving force behind the embassy community’s support of children in need at the local orphanage Mi Casa. Garcia mobilized the embassy and Salvadoran community to raise funds for a building expansion to house additional orphan girls.

Moises Thanked the Honorable Mentions Recipients for Their Outstanding Achievements

  • AF Honorable Mentions:  Heather Nader (Nairobi, Kenya), Diane Young (Nairobi, Kenya), Danielle Muench (Nairobi, Kenya) 
  • EUR Honorable Mentions: Sarah Begbie (Yerevan, Armenia) and Mikell Reed Carroll (Belgrade, Serbia)     
  • SCA Honorable Mention:  Jason Coombs (Colombo, Sri Lanka) 
  • WHA Honorable Mention:  Malia Skaret (Asuncion, Paraguay) 

2023 Leslie Dorman Award

AAFSW’s selection committee of previous Dorman Award recipients unanimously nominated the first tandem winners of the 2023 Dorman Award, Ambassador Patrick F. Kennedy and Senior FSO (retired) Mary Elisabeth Swope, for their contribution to AAFSW, the broader foreign affairs community, and their fundraising effort during the pandemic and AAFSW’s annual Art and Bookfairs.

2023 CCE-EFM Award Winner

  • Rona Jobe, CEO of LVL-Up Strategies and an EFM in Washington, DC for advocating for Eligible Family Members’ (EFMs) career progression. She has provided mentorship, guidance, and resources to EFMs and private companies to retain and hire EFMs, allowing them to find meaningful employment and advance their careers.

2023 Eleanor Dodson Award Winner

Michelle is a State Department EFM and Civil Service (CS) employee working under a DETO arrangement for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs (IO) from Bucharest, Romania. Michelle spearheaded last year’s successful pay equity legislation campaign for Civil Service Domestic Employees Teleworking Overseas (DETOs). The passage of this legislation was a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) win for the U.S. Department and interagency and helped many federal families.

The Transformative Power 

The 2023 SOSA committee recognizes the winners for their exceptional volunteer service to the communities they serve, their mission, for their host country, or for rendering outstanding assistance in emergencies. The selection criteria align with the broader goals of promoting sustainable development and reducing inequality. By aligning the SOSA selection criteria with these goals, we ensure that the awards recognize and encourage projects that contribute to the broader objectives of the USG.

Projects Demonstrate the Following

  • Advocacy and Policy Influence: Robert and Kimberly Gudenkauf in Mongolia have worked with advocacy groups and government officials to support animal shelters and push for Mongolia’s first animal rights law.
  • Community Outreach and Volunteer Recruitment: George Cornick in Uganda has recruited many volunteers for different initiatives. 
  • Project Management and Implementation: Jerry Case in Ireland started the Good Bike Project, refurbishing used bicycles for Ukrainian refugees. Rona Jobe has helped EFMs navigate their career.
  • Fundraising and Resource Mobilization: George Cornick in Uganda has obtained grant funding to benefit the Bless a Child Foundation.
  • Mentorship and Teaching: Mandy Brown in Qatar has tutored women and children new skills and helped them develop their creative abilities.
  • Technological Transformation: William “Ed” O’Bryan and Alesia Krupenikava in Turkmenistan helped start the U.S.-based nonprofit Technovation Girls.

AAFSW’s SOSA awardees and their volunteer achievements are significant and have a lasting impact. Zohra Benesch, the 1995 SOSA recipient, is a remarkable individual whose laudable initiative to nurture and develop an orphanage in Tunisia has reaped significant rewards. Some children from this orphanage are now flourishing as scholars in American universities, imparting the peaceful culture of Islam. It is heartening to see the lasting impact of Zohra’s volunteer work.

In another heartening example, John Falin, Executive Director, United States Organization (USO mid Atlantic), Kerstin Lawson, Center Operations Supervisor USO Dulles International Airport Lounge, National Capital District, and Annabelle Riccio, Senior Officer Fundraising and Board Relations, SO Southeast Region, and the USO Volunteers extended their assistance to Bob Castro, the 2016 SOSA winner. From our embassy in Jerusalem, Bob orchestrated and provided support for the first charter plane of evacuees from Israel at Dulles Airport in October 2023, working synergetically with our very own Ann La Porta from the AAFSW Evacuee Support Network to make this transition for these families as human as possible.

The 2023 SOSA ceremony was inspiring and a witness to the American foreign affairs community volunteerism’s positive impact and its transformative role in creating positive change. All attendees, families, and friends left the ceremony humbled and proud of all the 2023 SOSA awardees’ accomplishments. We look forward to seeing the positive impact they will continue to make in their communities and beyond. 

Congratulations to all the 2023 SOSA awardees!