For the families of U.S. Foreign Service officers, and the officers themselves, working in far-flung corners of the earth is an adjustment. Not necessarily an unwelcome one, but an adjustment nonetheless as visits with family become few, and cultural and linguistic changes alter their norms.

For the thousands living that life, home is where the embassy is, and the lines between work and “real” family blur.

The roots planted by State Department officers and their dependents may be unearthed and replanted from time to time, but even in a short period, the reach of this global network leaves a lasting impression on the communities in which they embed.

Volunteerism by eligible family members, like the spouses and children of Foreign Service officers, has grown to compelling heights, whether it’s building insulated dog houses in the coldest capital city on earth, coaching young girls to develop AI apps to benefit their community, or refurbishing used bicycles to distribute to resettled Ukrainian refugees.

“This is our fourth tour, and it’s the most connected we’ve felt to a community we’ve been in,” said Kimberly Gudenkauf, an adjudicator who works with her husband, Robert, a diplomatic security agent, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. “And it’s because of this volunteer work.”

The Gudenkaufs are among eight winners of the 2023 Secretary of State Awards for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad award given by the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide.

Every year, the State Department recognizes U.S. government employees, family members, and other members of household at embassies and consulates for their volunteer service in their host country.

Mikell Reed Carroll, a previous SOSA winner and an honoree this year, said being stationed in Belgrade, Serbia, exposed her to the philanthropic work of the royal family, which she got involved with to help distribute gifts to orphans and other children with special needs.

“There are pros and cons to any foreign assignment,” she said in an interview. “Concentrate on what you love about the place and really focus on that and see how you can expand your love to other things, as well.”

Winners receive a $2,500 prize, a paid trip to a ceremony in Washington, D.C., a certificate signed by the secretary and a pin commemorating the annual November event.

Meet this year’s winners and honorees.

George Cornick

Kampala, Uganda — Bureau of African Affairs

George Cornick, an eligible family member and recently retired employee, found himself partnering alongside the self-proclaimed first clown in Uganda to benefit children with cancer and improve the environment in which they were receiving treatment.

Cornick garnered dozens of volunteers around the embassy to paint a childcare center and build a vegetable garden and green space with flowers and trees to make the childrens’ stays less intimidating and more comforting.

Cornick also devoted time to the Refuge of Hope center where he drew on his experience working in Baltimore, Maryland, and other cities to mentor young men and teach them interviewing techniques, life skills and step dancing.

“Kids are kids all over the world,” he said in an interview with Federal Times. “Some of these kids just need role models, and they need somebody that can guide them.”

Advice for aspiring public servants:

“A lot of people who work especially at USAID, the CDC, the State Department, they were Peace Corps volunteers. If I had the opportunity when I was coming up, I would have joined the Peace Corps.”

Robert and Kimberly Gudenkauf

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia — Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

When Robert and Kimberly Gudenkauf first arrived in Mongolia, a stray injured dog found them during the harsh winter season.

The two rehabilitated him and began looking for a permanent home when they realized how difficult that was and how few resources were afforded to homeless animals. They came across a shelter that would accept him, but upon dropping him off, they were shocked at what they found.

“When we went to drop him off, we were just heartbroken ... seeing the conditions,” said Kim in an interview. “It is an outdoor animal shelter ... the dogs live on chains outside just because they have limited funds. They get their funding from donations. And we left there saying, ‘we want to help. We want to do everything we can to help these shelters.’ And it just kind of started our journey.”

What began as a team of three grew to a now steady group of more than 90 volunteers who bring whatever skills they to have raise money and resources to repair local shelters and find permanent homes in the U.S. and Canada for abandoned pets.

The couple also helped build support for the country’s first animal rights law, which could pass as soon as this week. The original dog they found now lives with his family in Canada, the couple said on Wednesday at the ceremony.

Advice for aspiring public servants:

“This project is a good example of being able to show a positive example of the United States interacting overseas and reflect[ing] well upon your country and the people who live in America. And I would encourage anyone who wants to have a direct, tangible [impact], like ‘I am serving my country, I am making a difference’ feeling, [to] seek out this job.”

Jerry Case

Dublin, Ireland — Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

Jerry Case, an EFM and retired National Parks Service ranger, brought his love for cycling overseas to Ireland where he worked with local owners of a bike shop in Dublin to refurbish and distribute more than 2,000 used bikes to displaced Ukrainian refugees, many of which were women and children, he said.

“They came with their luggage or whatever they could carry in and really had no transportation,” Case said in an interview. “So bicycles really gave them lots of freedom.”

Case said the bike shop was “atypical,” in that it was housed in a historic building with no heating in the cold months and very little good lighting.

“We worked outside all year round,” he said. “It probably didn’t have any work done on it in 100 years, but it was filled with bikes — a thousand bikes and all of them used.”

The Good Bike Project now serves almost every county in Ireland.

Advice for aspiring public servants:

“I’ve worked in federal service for 41 years now. I would advise anybody to jump in with both feet. It’s an adventure. Just do it, just go for it.”

Mandy Brown

Doha, Qatar — Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs

Mandy Brown, also an EFM, helped Afghan refugees in Doha, Qatar, by purchasing supplies, often with her own money, to help women and children develop marketable skills and nourish their creativity.

“I am in awe of all the time and sacrifice that is freely given by so many,” she said at the ceremony on Nov. 29.

Her work also involved other volunteers with Doha Do-Gooders, who supported local families awaiting resettlement. Brown also helped the local American school and the Qatar Little League with their sports competitions.

William “Ed” O’Bryan and Alesia Krupenikava

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan — Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs

Recognizing a resource gap for women and girls in Turkmenistan wanting to learn about technology, husband-and-wife team William “Ed” O’Bryan and Alesia Krupenikava worked to support an entrepreneurship program that teaches coding skills.

Through the U.S.-based nonprofit Technovation Girls, the two helped recruit and train local volunteers and members of the business and diplomatic communities to judge and mentor girls aged 8 to 18. In the program, students would identify a problem in their community and develop an app or AI solution to address it.

“Since 2021, more than 350 Turkmen girls have participated in Technovation Girls’ programming, and three teams from Turkmenistan have progressed through a pool of more than 1,000 teams to reach the semifinals of the organization’s global competition,” according to the State Department.

Daniela Garcia

San Salvador, El Salvador — Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs

Daniela Garcia, an EFM, has helped create counseling and support programs for young, orphaned mothers in the Salvadoran community who had been victims of abuse and were in need of a safe place to stay.

She is also working on a training program for expecting parents to develop care for themselves and their babies once they’re born.

Garcia has also been “the driving force behind the embassy community’s support of children in need at the local orphanage Mi Casa,” according to the State Department.

Michelle Neyland

Eleanor Dodson Tragen Award winner

As a federal employee and the spouse of a State Department official, Michelle Neyland knows all too well the toll frequent moves and remote outposts can take on a family stationed overseas.

“After uprooting my home and my children in service of the U.S. government and all the stress that comes with that, it was crushing to receive my paycheck once I moved abroad and started teleworking in my same job, which I had been doing for years,” she said.

Losing locality pay because of her overseas move resulted in a near 30% loss of her paycheck, she said.

At the time, Neyland realized that other spouses faced similar frustrations, and had either quit their jobs or tried to find money as entrepreneurs or freelancers upon going abroad, even if they had already established a career. That’s what inspired her to help develop and advocate for the Domestic Employees Teleworking Overseas program, which was approved by Congress last December.

“It’s a way to have constant continuity in our careers as our spouse moves from embassy to embassy,” said Neyland, who helped research the program that helped close the federal pay gaps arising from moves overseas.

Advice for aspiring public servants:

“Be patient and stick with it. We really need young people. I‘d ask them to consider working for the federal government because it can provide a good, stable career, like it has for me. You can use transferable skills. And I think being a good writer is important, too.”

African Affairs honorable mentions

  • Heather Nader (Nairobi, Kenya)
  • Diane Young (Nairobi, Kenya)
  • Danielle Muench (Nairobi, Kenya)

Europe honorable mentions

  • Sarah Begbie (Yerevan, Armenia)
  • Mikell Reed Carroll (Belgrade, Serbia)

South and central Asia honorable mention

  • Jason Coombs (Colombo, Sri Lanka)

Western hemisphere honorable mention

  • Malia Skaret (Asunción, Paraguay)

Correction: This story was updated to reflect the correct month of the passage of the DETO program.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In Other News
Load More