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First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year Award Ceremony Honors Eight Alaskans

May 17, 2022

Today, First Lady Rose Dunleavy congratulated eight recipients of the First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year Award at 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 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 for letting us recognize all that you do – all that you do not for recognition, not for personal gain, not for awards – but for service to your neighbors and your communities,” First Lady Rose Dunleavy said. “Unfortunately, Gary Olson cannot be with us today. Gary passed away in February and although he is no longer with us, we’d like to honor his contribution to Alaskans. As I said, this group’s recipients are truly inspirational and are examples of people who put serving others above themselves. You are all so deserving of this award.”


2022 Volunteer of the Year Honorees

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 of Juneau. Through these programs, they support senior citizens, hospice patients, and their families in the community by providing companionship, respite, advocacy, errand-running, and in-home assistance with minor repairs, help with technology, or preparing meals. Gordy spends time delivering hospital beds and other equipment for hospice patients, enabling them to more safely and comfortably remain in their own homes. Gordy has served on the board of JAMHI Health and Wellness for over 20 years, including several terms as President and Chair of various committees. Mary is a past member of the Hospice board and is a long-time volunteer with The Learning Connection in Juneau, tutoring adults studying English as a Second Language or working toward completion of their GED certificates. Gordy and Mary are grateful for the enriching opportunities and relationships their volunteer work brings them.

Carla Demit

Carla Demit has been 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 been instrumental in providing the basketball teams with resources to afford the travel associated with school sports in Alaska. Recently, Northway High School teams made a 350-mile one-way trip to compete at another high school. Teams sleep overnight in the school they are visiting, and need to purchase food and fuel. The cost for the activities fund was well over $2,000. Temperatures of 30 below zero necessitate expensive cold-weather gear, which students sometimes cannot afford. That is where Carla shines. Due to Carla’s passionate perseverance, the 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 on the front burner and helping the community rally around causes has made a lasting effect on the small Northway community.

Sharon Stevens-Ganser

Some people in Seward say, “Holy Cow, I have never seen a person who volunteers more,” when describing Sharon Stevens-Ganser. There is rarely a volunteer opportunity in Seward where one would not find Sharon lending a hand. From local races such as Mt. Marathon, Tsunami Swim Team meets, volleyball line judging, high school sports booster 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 at the Polar Bear Jump, to helping at the food bank, senior center activities, and the Alaska Tsunami Ocean Science Bowl, she so passionately contributes to her community with kindness, dependability, expertise, and selflessness. Sharon is the essence of what makes living in a small town so wonderful. Seward would truly not be the same without her.

Kathy Gensel

Kathy Gensel is the 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, and now grandchildren’s, school and church, as well as Soldotna and the State of Alaska. She has worked to bring awareness to the Kenai Peninsula on the issues of homelessness and housing insecurity. Kathy has been actively engaged in Project Homeless Connect and Shelter Development workgroups. Without her dedication, the organization would not have been able to acquire 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. Her home has housed Peninsula Oilers baseball players for many seasons. She has stayed up late at annual Relay for Life events and has been a member of the local 100+ Women Who Care since its inception four years ago. Kathy is caring, compassionate, organized, and committed, all while living joyfully. Kathy has never volunteered for praise 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 partake in martial arts, offering this program almost free of charge for many years. He has been able to continue the martial arts program with donations from the Anchorage community. Fostering a positive environment while instilling values in children needing an outlet is what motivates TJ to continue working with youth. He requires his students to be timely and dedicated to their lessons, get good grades in school and behave as upstanding citizens. Through TJ’s brilliant and tireless efforts, many youths who might not have a chance to experience martial arts, are now given the opportunity. TJ does not just guide youth through martial arts; he provides lessons in exercise, personal growth, stewardship, and responsibility, and establishes a path to becoming good citizens of their community.

Gary Olson

Gary Warren Olson, father, son, brother, and friend passed in Anchorage on February 9, 2022. A lifelong Alaskan, Gary was known for his selfless endeavors, random acts of kindness, and volunteer work. He has left a legacy of positivity and service, volunteering more than 10,000 hours to various nonprofits, organizations, projects, and missions. In 2002, Gary founded the Alaska Moose Federation (AMF), serving as its Executive Director until 2015. During his tenure, the AMF established the orphaned moose calf relocation program, salvaged thousands of moose, created countless miles of diversionary snow trails, and cleared rights-of-ways in the MatSu and on the Kenai Peninsula. After leaving the Moose Federation, Gary went on to serve Alaska’s veteran community through the Veteran Internships Providing Employment Readiness (VIPER) program. “When Gary gave to a cause he gave it his all, often forsaking himself for the benefit of others,” is a phrase that captures his dedication and selflessness. Dana DeBernardi, a friend who worked alongside Gary in his orphaned moose relocation efforts, is here with us today to accept this award on Gary’s behalf.

Charlene Tautfest

Charlene Tautfest is what one would call a professional volunteer, focusing the majority of her volunteer hours on health care in the State of Alaska. She has held leadership roles on the Alaska Mental Health Board as Chair, the Peninsula Community Health Services as President, and the Alaska Primary Care Association Policy and Advocacy Committee as Chair. Charlene serves on the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education, Alaska Coalition of Housing and Homelessness, Alaska Psychiatric Institute Governing Board, Alaska Primary Care Association Board, City of Soldotna Planning & Zoning Commission, and Soldotna Rotary Club as President. Charlene is a strong advocate for her beliefs and is involved in a local women’s organization to help bring like-minded women together. During her year as President of the Soldotna Rotary Club, she has focused on children with Rotary Cares for Kids, organizing donations of birthday bags to the local Food Bank and expanding the program by bringing it to other local organizations to get monthly birthday bags donated to the Food Bank. Charlene truly embodies Alaska Volunteerism.

The photos from the event, and of all the awardees, can be viewed here.