By Peggy Kreimer Hodgson
Rotary Club of Cincinnati
Katie Nzekwu from Fort. Thomas received the country’s highest community service award – the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Prize for outstanding public service to benefit local communities – as part of the Jefferson Awards program, known as the Nobel Prize for Community Service .
Nzekwu is the co-founder and CEO of Found Village, which creates a family-style support system for traumatized teens in Greater Cincinnati, helping them develop the skills and support systems necessary for a stable life.
She is one of five people from across the country to win the 2021 national award for services that impact local communities. The award is part of the larger Jefferson Awards program that recognizes outstanding service in more than a dozen categories, from service by government officials and professional sports figures to service by individuals, students and businesses.
Nzekwu was honored on September 30, alongside Joan Ganz Cooney, co-creator of Sesame Street, who pioneered television’s role in children’s education, and Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the ‘National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, which has been the medical advisor to seven presidents.
This year, for the first time, the awards ceremony was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifty-nine winning individuals and groups were celebrated at the national online event.
“For nearly 50 years, the Jefferson Awards have elevated the good that is happening all around us,” said Hillary Schafer, CEO of Multiplying Good, which created the Jefferson Awards program. “When we celebrate service on our biggest stage, these stories resonate across the country, reaching thousands of Americans and inspiring them to take action.”
Katie Nzekwu was the first winner of this year’s event. She co-founded Found Village in 2015. It takes its name from the adage that it takes a village to raise a child. Nzekwu said the program is for adolescents who lack that “village” of support that often comes from family, mentors and the close community. Most of the adolescents who enter the program have entered and left detention centers, courtrooms, foster homes, shelters and school internships.
In her acceptance speech, she told the crowd, “It is imperative that we help them understand, when they come to this community, that there is nothing wrong with you. There are things that have happened to you and you have had really normal responses to some really abnormal things.
Through her program, they have a “found village” where they can discover talents, explore interests and build strong relationships and healthy lifestyles. Extracurricular, individual and community activities include job training, life skills, fitness, creative experiences and mentoring.
The program is designed to serve youth aged 15 to 22, but supports can continue until the age of 25.
Adolescents in the program experienced an 89% decrease in psychiatric hospital admissions, 90% graduated from high school and moved on to secondary education, and 70% left supervised custody and were reunited with their families. The program saved the community approximately $ 200,000 in services.
Nzekwu understands the challenges his participants face. When she was 15, she was living in a juvenile detention center. She subsequently obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in social work administration. She worked as a social worker for 12 years before co-founding Found Village with her husband to fill the gaps she saw in traditional adolescent systems.
The national Jefferson Awards program was founded in 1972 by Cincinnati native Robert Taft and former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
The winners are nominated for national recognition through local Jefferson Prize programs in more than 90 communities across the country.
The Rotary Club of Cincinnati administers the nomination program in Greater Cincinnati with local partners Cincinnati investigator and WKRC-TV Local 12. The local show co-chairs this year were Doug Adams from Indian Hill and Bill Shula from Clermont County. Over the past 16 years, nine winners from Greater Cincinnati have received the National Award.
The Jefferson Awards program reflects the Rotary Club’s motto, Service Above Self, said Melinda Kelly, president of the Rotary Club of Cincinnati.
“We are truly honored to have helped bring national attention to Katie Nzekwu’s work and her passion for service,” said Kelly of Mason.
The Rotary Club of Cincinnati is a service and networking organization whose mission is to provide selfless service to the community and to the world.