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Positive Energy in a Worldwide Outage



Todd Jurkowski is a first-tour, public diplomacy-coned officer. Before joining the For-

eign Service, he worked as a television anchor and reporter, and as communications

director for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Todd lives with his wife,

Jessica, and their 7-year-old daughter, Alexa, in São Paulo.


t’s not new to see the staff of a U.S.

embassy or consulate somewhere

around the world painting and raking

and clipping hedges on any given

weekend as part of a community service

project. But on a Thursday? In São Paulo,

Brazil, one of the busiest non-immigrant

visa posts in the world?

The recent worldwide, consular-sys-

tems outage brought the United States’

well-oiled visa operations in South

America’s largest city to a halt. During

the stoppage, many Foreign Service

officers and locally employed (LE) staff

had free time during the normal work

day. Although they tried to use it to

attend to non-visa-related responsibili-

ties, additional trainings and staff-led

information presentations, their energy


In a section that prides itself on

exceptional customer service, the outage

was a direct hit on staff morale. Inun-

dated with requests from applicants with

urgent travel needs that could not be

fulfilled—for reasons beyond the sec-

tion’s control—the staff grew frustrated

and dispirited.

So our visa chief decided to challenge

people to get out of the box and do some-

thing on a greater scale: leave the office

and do good for the community.

It didn’t take long for a second-tour

colleague to create that opportunity. He

dialed up ABBA, a São Paulo-based char-

ity that is in the process of opening a first-

of-its-kind shelter in the city targeting

at-risk youth. Casa Liberdade, as it will

be called, will be a safe house catering

exclusively to girls rescued from sexual

exploitation or sex trafficking.

Eight people—three FSOs and five LE

staff from the consular section responded

to the call for volunteers. At the shelter,

they divided into two teams. One team

used paint to spruce up the rooms where

the girls will sleep during their time at

Casa Liberdade. The other crew worked

as gardeners for the day.

For those who participated, trading

their computers, scanners and visa foils

for paint brushes, ladders and hedge clip-

pers was an easy decision. “It is so good

to help others who don’t have as much.

Giving the girls a nice place to live is good

for the heart,” said one LE staff member.

ABBA’s goal is to open Casa Liberdade

later this year. Until then, there is plenty

of work to be done, including remodel-

ing a bathroom, converting a two-story

apartment on the property into an office

and remodeling a space where the girls

can receive private counseling as part of

their recovery and healing.

With these major projects still to

come, painting the walls and trimming

hedges hardly seem like crucial contri-

butions. But for the staff and volunteers

at ABBA, the efforts of the consulate

staff served a dual purpose. It provided

additional hands to do jobs that needed

to be done. More importantly, it inspired

ABBA to work even harder to realize their


“It definitely is motivation. It gives us

encouragement that we all can do this,

that we are supported and that we are not

in this alone,” said the shelter coordina-


By early afternoon, the volunteer work

was done, but the workday itself was not.

The team arrived back at the consulate

about 3 p.m. One of the volunteer FSOs

scurried off to a planning meeting, a few

minutes late, with his hands still sticky

with sap and his clothes stained with dirt.

The rest of the crew went back to their

desks, some with dried paint in their hair,

others with dirt on their clothes, and

helped process the few visas that had

made their way through the crippled visa

process that day.

In the days following, the computer

systems slowly came back on line and

things returned to normal in the visa

section. But the group of eight will always

cherish the day that they created a little

positive energy during a worldwide sys-

tems outage.


Trading computers, scanners and visa

foils for paint brushes, ladders and

hedge clippers was an easy decision.