Foreign Service members honored for volunteer efforts abroad

From helping dogs in India find new homes in the U.S. to obtaining shoes for a school of Bulgarian children, award-winning volunteers help Foreign Service trans...

Six members of the Foreign Service and their families were recognized Wednesday for their exceptional volunteering efforts overseas.

The Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) presented The Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad (SOSA) Wednesday at its annual awards program in the Benjamin Franklin Reception Room at the Department of State in Washington.

“People who are volunteering are doing it out of their own heart and goodwill,” said Lara Center, AAFSW’s SOSA chairwoman. “They’re not seeking the recognition. It’s just something that’s part of the American culture. We want to help others and be a part of the community and that’s a way to get your foot in the door and meet new people and feel like you’re helping.”

Center, who also received the Lesley Dorman Award at the ceremony for her support of AAFSW’s efforts to support the diplomatic community, said that the SOSA program is a chance to recognize the good work Foreign Service members do when they’re off the clock.

“In large part, there can be a misconception about what diplomats do with their time, such as cocktail receptions and having tea and crumpets,” Center said. “They don’t realize that the Foreign Service officers and family members want to be part of their local community in their host country. They want to help and they want to make a difference. We are out there doing it because we want to, not because it’s expected.”

The 2014 SOSA recipients are:

  • Sgt. Kyle Romero volunteered at the Children of Light and Haven of Hope orphanages while assigned to the Marine Security Guard Detachment in Accra, Ghana.
  • Kerry Carswell led the charity group Friends of Lopyan, which helped disadvantaged children in a small rural town in Bulgaria.
  • Shilpa Gadde founded the animal support group Rescue Without Borders in New Dehli, India.
  • Jose Ramierez Dorce, Fernando Marcelo Alvarez and Liana Maria Alvarez founded the charity Zapatos Rotos” [“Broken Shoes”], to help children with physical and mental disabilities in Mexico City, Mexico.

SOSA recipient Kerry Carswell, whose husband Bruce Carswell is an Army attache stationed in Sofia, Bulgaria, tries to volunteer wherever her family ends up living, either at the school her children attend or with the community at large.

“This particular group, the Friends of Lopyan, was working with disadvantaged kids in Bulgaria,” she said. “I have two kids and so the whole concept of helping was really near to my heart.”

Friends of Lopyan was already established at the embassy when the Carswell family arrived. Through various fundraising events, Kerry Carswell led the group in raising more than $4,000 to help purchase such items as medicine, clothes and school supplies for the children in the village of Lopyan. The charity also worked with a local shoemaker to buy shoes for the entire Lopyan school.

“Ultimately, I really do firmly believe that it’s something that everybody would honestly probably do if they were in my position,” said Romero, another SOSA recipient.

Although Romero is humbled by receiving the award, he credits his faith with inspiring him to tutor, provide property maintenance and distribute goods at two orphanages in Ghana.

“The Lord showed me a path and put in my heart to be humble and generous and give out what I possibly can,” he said.

SOSA recipient Shilpa Gadde, lives in New Dehli, India, with her husband, Patrick, who is stationed there as a Homeland Security Department employee. The couple began helping stray dogs to find homes when they lived in New Jersey.

“We used to rescue dogs and cats from our local shelters, especially pit bulls because they are the most difficult to find homes for,” Shilpa Gadde said. “So, when we went to India, we saw the plight of the animals on the street was at a whole different level. You just cannot ignore the dogs dying in the street, the orphan puppies, the injured animals, the paralyzed dogs, cruelty victims, accident victims.”

So, the couple started Rescue Without Borders, a nonprofit that helps find homes in the U.S. for the dogs they rescued from the streets of New Dehli, India.

“It was amazing,” Shilpa Gadde said. “People opened their hearts and homes to these dogs.”

Rescue Without Borders has volunteers all around the country. People can find out more about the organization and view photos of the dogs available for adoption on the rescue’s Facebook page.

Through their efforts, Rescue Without Borders has been able to rescue more than 200 cats and dogs from India over the last two years.

“They make wonderful family pets, amazing animals,” Shilpa Gadde said. “They’re just so grateful and they live a really happy, healthy life here away from the dangers of the streets of India.”

Jose Ramirez Dorce accepted the SOSA on behalf of himself and fellow volunteers Fernando Marcelo and Liana Maria Alvarez. The trio founded “Zapatos Rotos” [“Broken Shoes”], a charity to help disadvantaged children in Mexico City.

The organization came out of Dorce and the Alvarezes’ desire to help the students of Centro de Atencion Multiple #48, a school for children with physical and mental disabilities.

Zapatos Rotos created two websites to share information about how to help the children, one in English and one in Spanish.

Two other awards were presented during Wednesday’s program.

DACOR presented Ann La Porta with the Eleanor Dodson Tragen Award, recognizing her efforts in advocating for global rights and benefits for the Foreign Service community.

Jamie Armstrong received the 2014 Champions of Career Enhancement for EFMs Award, which is presented to a person who has proactively advanced employment for Eligible Family Members. Armstrong, who is currently the human resources officer for Embassy Hanoi and Consulate Ho Chi Minh City, was not present at the ceremony and the award was accepted for her by a colleague.

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