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Six people stand in front of a wall. Two people hold pots and two people wear face masks.

As we enter the season of gratitude and holidays, the Department commemorates heroes among us through the 2022  Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad (SOSA) awards, administered by the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW).  These recipients and members of the State Department family forged a way to give back to the local community while serving at a post, from Madagascar to China, Moldova to Qatar, and beyond.  Meet the SOSA winners as they impart their experiences and wisdom. 


Two people pose for the camera, smiling.
Justin Wimpey poses with a gentleman from Madagascar. (State Department Photo/Public Domain)

Justin Wimpey is an engineer and cook who has been a family member of a Foreign Service Officer for 12 years.  He has always managed to find creative outlets by volunteering or doing projects wherever he ends up in the world.  Most recently, recognizing that 97 percent of Madagascar’s population uses charcoal for cooking, Wimpey sought a better solution that would not only be technologically feasible but highly affordable, produced locally, and culturally accepted.   He developed a special pressure cooker known as the “Cocotte Minute Gasy,” which reduces charcoal use and saves significant time. 

What is the most rewarding moment from this volunteer experience? 

Wimpey:   Witnessing the project grow beyond my initial idea into something that the people of Madagascar have embraced is a priceless gift.  When you are on a trip and run into someone randomly who has bought [a “Cocotte Minute Gasy”] and really enjoys using it every day, that’s a great feeling to know this project can be a success.  


Two people in protective gear pack chicken into boxes.
Volunteers pack up chicken during the lockdown in Shanghai. (State Department Photo/Public Domain)

In March 2022, Shanghai imposed one of the harshest lockdowns in the world in response to the PRC’s largest COVID-19 outbreak, leaving the population without access to food and other necessities.  Through indefatigable networking efforts, the volunteer team of Denis Rajic, Michele Rajic Tang, Vicki Daniel, and Ellin R. Lobb organized wholesale food deliveries for U.S. direct-hire staff and families and local employees of Consulate General Shanghai, some of whom had not had deliveries in weeks.

How does the spirit of volunteerism elevate you as a human being? 

Rajic:  Volunteerism is, in essence, the foundation of our American experience, the bedrock of our communities, and our efforts to build that shining city on the hill.  During our service as diplomats overseas, we are constantly reminded that our actions do not end during the regular work schedule.  Our service goes beyond with a grassroots impact.  As constant diplomats, our efforts are judged every hour of every day.  By volunteering, we exemplify the best of the American tradition of helping and raising our communities, whether in small town USA or at some distant outpost abroad. 

Daniel:  Serving as a volunteer is a means of giving back to a community that takes care of you.  I am humbled and brought back to reality with every volunteer opportunity.  It has led me to a deeper understanding of how we all need help in some ways, both physically and mentally

What is the most rewarding moment from this volunteer experience? 

Rajic:   It was knowing that when all else failed, our staff could turn to us in their hour of need.  

Daniel:  The messages from our staff were so grateful for the food and other items.  The gratitude was overwhelming, and my heart still swells when I think of their struggles during such an unprecedented lockdown.  

Lobb:  It was when the local staff expressed gratitude for what Mission China did to help them when they needed it most.  This is showing 260+ local staff – not counting their family members – the BEST of America.  This is people-to-people diplomacy, more than anything.  


A woman in a blue and white dress packs a box. Other people stand in the background.
Meredith Wiedemer assembles school supplies at the Sunflower Center. (State Department Photo/Public Domain)

In Moldova, as more than 460,000 Ukrainian refugees have streamed across the border, Eligible Family Member Meredith Wiedemer was part of the leadership team at a donation center that provided emergency supplies like food, hygiene, and baby items to more than 38,000 refugees.  One month into the conflict, she realized the need for long-term support for refugees.  In turn, Wiedemer opened Sunflower Center, which provides children’s programming, psychosocial support for mothers, and employment to Ukrainian women

What is the most rewarding moment from this volunteer experience? 

Wiedemer:  It was the powerful moment of watching refugee children enjoy their childhood again.  Refugee children are separated from their fathers and everything they know.  Typically when they first arrive, they are shy and distant.  Yet, after a few visits working with our Ukrainian teachers, children are dancing, creating beautiful art, and most importantly, engaging with other children and making friends.  Ukrainian mothers thank us every day for helping them and their children.  All of this is what continues to motivate me to forge ahead.   


Seven people pose for the camera, two dressed in fatigues. They stand in a warehouse next to bags and boxes.
Debra Stock team up with her “Doha Do-Gooders.” (State Department Photo/Public Domain)

Eligible Family Member Debra Stock arrived at her first overseas post, Doha, around the same time as a flood of 58,000 Afghan refugees.  Stock immediately took the lead in organizing volunteers to help, spending her days and nights for months at Al Udeid Air Base.  Her “Doha Do-Gooders” worked on the receiving lines for incoming refugees and provided warm clothing, hygiene items, other essentials, and children’s supplies, including more than 300 soccer balls. 

How does the spirit of volunteerism elevate you as a human being? 

Stock:Being a human being is to feel emotions and to feel connected.  Volunteering helps me feel alive by allowing me to feel the depths of emotions like joy and gratitude, empathy and sorrow, grief and hope.  These emotions connect me to others and make me feel closer to them; it allows me to transcend languages and cultures and feel unified

What is the most rewarding moment from this volunteer experience?

Stock:  It is communicating with the language of love.  Many displaced Afghans do not speak English, and I do not speak Dari or Pashto.  However, when I see a smile on the faces of young children who come and play or a sigh of relief from parents when they get their special immigrant visa, I feel that the small role I played in their lives matters.  They have also shown me that the impossible is possible. 

Finally, it is a gift watching my children learn the love of service.  They had to step outside themselves and step in to fill the need.  It has been pure joy watching them grow into, hopefully, the next generation of volunteers!  


To learn more about the SOSA Winners, visit the  Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide’s SOSA page.   

About the Author: Roberta Mather serves as the Senior Advisor for Employee Communications in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs, Office of Planning and Events at the U.S. Department of State.

U.S. Department of State

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