2016 AAFSW Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad

Notice to the Press
Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
November 9, 2016


Seven winners will receive the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad (SOSA) at a ceremony on Thursday, November 10, 2016 at 10:00 a.m. in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the Department of State. Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom will highlight the winners’ exemplary service and present the awards at the ceremony.

SOSA awards recognize U.S. government employees, family members, including domestic partners; and other members of household at embassies and consulates who performed exceptional volunteer service to their communities, mission or host country, or rendered outstanding assistance in emergencies. This year’s award winners include:

Ronit and Craig Gerard – Dakar (AF)

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 with little fanfare or appreciation in return. They volunteer at post as: garden path committee member, post’s sports field renovation group leader, softball coach three times, official National Day team lead, unofficial photographer for countless events, chief planner for the unofficial July Fourth party, field warden three times for post’s annual 20-team softball tournament and even delivered a bartending and homebrew class for CLO. They have been instrumental in improving overall educational success through hygiene, nutrition and educational foundations.

Sofia Blake – Jakarta (EAP)

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 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 also 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 – Ankara (EUR)

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). 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 – Manama (NEA)

Robert “Bob” Castro’s volunteer activities aimed at our host country and his service to the broader 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. He 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 University) 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.

Jennifer Heemstra – Kolkata (SCA)

Jennifer Heemstra has achieved much in expanding consulate outreach and connection with the Kolkata community, while promoting public awareness on human trafficking 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 has brought international artists, university professors and Broadway singers to Kolkata to showcase Western classical music, while championing and disseminating public awareness to combat human trafficking and encouraging social integration of Indians of all castes (classes).

Farah Vinnedge – Brasilia (WHA)

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).

For more information about the award, please visit: http://www.aafsw.org/services/sosa

The award ceremony is open for press coverage. Members of the press wishing to attend should contact Public Affairs Officer Brenda Greenberg at 202-647-1679.

Pre-set time for cameras: 9:00 a.m.

Final access time for all press: 9:45 a.m.

Media representatives may attend this award ceremony upon presentation of one of the following: (1) a U.S. government-issued identification card (Department of State, White House, Congress, Department of Defense, or Foreign Press Center), (2) a media-issued photo identification card, or (3) a letter from the requester’s employer on letterhead verifying his/her employment status as a journalist, accompanied by an official photo identification (driver’s license or passport). Those who do not have a State Department building pass should allow adequate time for security processing at the 21st Street entrance.