THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
Positive Energy in a Worldwide Outage
BY TODD A . JURKOWSK I
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
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-
Trading computers, scanners and visa
foils for paint brushes, ladders and
hedge clippers was an easy decision.