Today, First Lady Rose Dunleavy congratulated the eight recipients of the First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year award during the ceremonial luncheon at the Governor’s Residence in Juneau, Alaska.
First Lady Dunleavy and her Selection Committee are honored to continue the tradition of recognizing the outstanding contributions of these dedicated individuals. First Lady Bella Hammond founded the First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year Awards in 1974. Each year, the awards celebrate and encourage the spirit of volunteerism in Alaska.
“I want to thank you all for being here today and allowing us to recognize all that you do – all that you do not for recognition, not for personal gain, not for rewards – but for service to your neighbors and your communities”, said First Lady Rose Dunleavy. “Unfortunately, Gary Olson cannot be with us today. Gary passed away in February and although he is no longer with us, we would like to honor his contribution to Alaskans. As I said, the recipients of this group are truly inspiring and are examples of people who put the service of others above themselves.You all so deserve this award.
Volunteers of the year 2022
Mary McDowell and Gordon Williams
Mary McDowell and Gordy Williams, nominated as a couple for the Volunteer Award, are active volunteers with the Friends of Seniors program in Juneau and Hospice and Home Care in Juneau. Through these programs, they support seniors, hospice patients, and their families in the community by providing companionship, respite, advocacy, errands, and home help with minor repairs, help with technology or meal preparation. Gordy spends time delivering hospital beds and other equipment for hospice patients, allowing them to stay more comfortably and safely in their own homes. Gordy served on the JAMHI Health and Wellness Board of Directors for over 20 years, including several terms as President and Chair of various committees. Mary is a former Hospice board member and a longtime volunteer with The Learning Connection in Juneau, tutoring adults studying English as a second language or working toward their GED certificates. Gordy and Mary are grateful for the rewarding opportunities and relationships their volunteer work brings them.
Carla Demit was instrumental in raising tens of thousands of dollars for student activities at Walter Northway School, located in the small Athabaskan village of Northway, Alaska. Carla has helped provide basketball teams with the resources to pay for travel associated with school sports in Alaska. Recently, teams from Northway High School traveled 350 miles one way to compete at another high school. The teams sleep at night in the school they visit and have to buy food and fuel. The cost of the activity fund was well over $2,000. Temperatures of 30° below zero require expensive cold equipment, which students sometimes cannot afford. This is where Carla shines. Thanks to Carla’s passionate perseverance, funds were raised in the small village in such a way that people were more than willing to donate. Consistently putting the needs of Walter Northway students first and helping the community rally around causes has had a lasting effect on the small community of Northway.
Some people in Seward say, “Holy Cow, I’ve never seen a person who volunteers more,” describing Sharon Stevens-Ganser. There is rarely a volunteer opportunity in Seward where one would not find Sharon lending a helping hand. From local races such as Mt. Marathon, Tsunami swim team meets, volleyball line judging, high school athletic recall club, tutoring Japanese exchange students, community choir and bell choir, painting with the Seward Mural Society, working at the Silver Salmon Derby and Seward Arts and Music Festival, driving Meals on Wheels, jumping the Polar Bear Jump, helping with the food bank, senior center activities and the Alaska Tsunami Ocean Science Bowl, she so passionately contributes to his community with kindness, reliability, expertise and selflessness. Sharon is the essence of what makes small town life so wonderful. Seward really wouldn’t be the same without her.
Kathy Gensel is director of the Central Peninsula Health Foundation for Central Peninsula Hospital and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for 42 years. Kathy has always volunteered in some capacity to serve her child’s school and church, and now her grandchildren, as well as Soldotna and the State of Alaska. She has worked to raise awareness on the Kenai Peninsula of the issues of homelessness and housing insecurity. Kathy has been an active participant in the Project Homeless Connect and Shelter Development working groups. Without his dedication, the organization could not have acquired a new facility that now houses the Nikiski Shelter of Hope. Kathy co-chairs the annual Homeless Connect event, providing resources and support to the homeless population. His house housed Peninsula Oilers baseball players for many seasons. She stays up late at annual Relay For Life events and has been a member of the local 100+ Women Who Care chapter since its inception four years ago. Kathy is caring, compassionate, organized and committed, while living happily. Kathy has never volunteered to receive accolades because she believes deeply in her core values.
Timothy D. Gjertson
Timothy “TJ” Gjertson is a small business owner, operating his concrete cutting business in Anchorage for decades. TJ saw a need in his community for youth organizations and developed a program for children to participate in martial arts, offering this program almost free of charge for many years. He was able to continue the martial arts program thanks to donations from the Anchorage community. Fostering a positive environment while instilling values in children who need an outlet is what motivates TJ to continue working with young people. He expects his students to be punctual and dedicated to their classes, to get good grades in school, and to behave like upright citizens. Thanks to the brilliant and tireless efforts of TJ, many young people who might not have had the chance to experience martial arts now have the opportunity. TJ doesn’t just guide young people through martial arts; it teaches lessons in exercise, personal growth, stewardship and responsibility, and sets a path to becoming good citizens of their community.
Gary Warren Olson, father, son, brother and friend died in Anchorage on February 9, 2022. A lifelong Alaskan, Gary was known for his selfless efforts, random acts of kindness and volunteer work. He left a legacy of positivity and service, volunteering over 10,000 hours to various nonprofits, organizations, projects and missions. In 2002, Gary founded the Alaska Moose Federation (AMF), of which he served as Executive Director until 2015. During his tenure, the AMF established the Orphan Moose Calf Relocation Program, retrieved thousands of moose, created countless miles of diversionary snow trails, and cleared rights-of-way in the MatSu and on the Kenai Peninsula. After leaving the Moose Federation, Gary continued to serve the Alaska veteran community through the VIPER (Veteran Internships Provisioning Employment Readiness) program. “When Gary gave to a cause, he gave it his all, often giving himself up for the benefit of others,” is a phrase that reflects his dedication and selflessness. Dana DeBernardi, a friend who worked alongside Gary in his efforts to relocate orphaned moose, is here with us today to accept this award on Gary’s behalf.
Charlene Tautfest is what you would call a professional volunteer, focusing the majority of her volunteer hours on health care in the state of Alaska. She has held leadership positions with the Mental Health Council of Alaska as Chair, Peninsula Community Health Services as Chair, and the Alaska Primary Care Policy and Advocacy Committee. Association as President. Charlene serves on the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education, the Alaska Housing and Homelessness Coalition, the Alaska Psychiatric Institute Board of Trustees, the Board of Alaska Primary Care Association, the City of Soldotna Zoning and Planning Commission, and the Rotary Club of Soldotna as president. Charlene is a strong advocate for her beliefs and is involved with a local women’s organization to help bring like-minded women together. During her year as president of the Rotary club Soldotna, she focused on children with Rotary Cares for Kids, organizing birthday bag donations to the local food bank and expanding the program by bringing to other local organizations to get monthly birthday bags donated to the food bank. Charlene truly epitomizes volunteerism in Alaska.
Photos of the event and of all the winners can be viewed here.