We are pleased to announce the Volunteer of the Year Award recipients for both FIRST LEGO League Challenge and FIRST LEGO League Explore. Recipients for the Challenge Division are David Baran from Maryland, USA and Sofia Bensouda from Morocco. Explore Division recipients are Rick Ramhap from Long Island, NY, USA and Stephen Swartzentruber from Ontario, Canada.
In a year where nothing was “normal” and every FIRST volunteer rose to the occasion to ensure teams were still able to participate in meaningful way, a few volunteers were recognized by their peers as extraordinary. It was an extremely difficult decision as to who should receive the awards since nominations from regions around the world told truly heroic stories of dedication and passion.
Take a closer look at our Award recipients, why they were chosen to receive this award and why they volunteer for FIRST.
“Dave, Maryland’s Head Judge, spent countless hours, nights, and weekends, thoughtfully planning, and considering how to optimize the virtual environment, providing the community with a quality experience,” said Jamie Gurganus, Maryland’s FIRST LEGO League Program Delivery Partner, in her nomination. “Dave’s leadership, passion, innovation, and tenacity are to be commended as it elevated this years’ experience for all our teams.”
Dave’s volunteering extends beyond Maryland and into neighboring regions of Virginia and across the U.S. Dave has spent his 10 years as Head Judge ensuring judging and the deliberations are equitable and inclusive and making sure everyone is heard.
As to why Dave volunteers for FIRST, he explains, “FIRST LEGO League specifically is a great program. The engagement we see across not only traditional demographics for engineering, but the non-traditional is going to help us grow the next generation of researchers and engineers. We have to have a more diverse base and this is a really great way to do it. I get a lot of personal benefit and enjoyment from seeing anything from the littlest successes to the largest for the teams.”
Sofia, Morocco’s national Head Referee, has been instrumental in translating community resources and sharing them with the teams. She conducts training and manages communication with all national referees with on-the-spot support on the day of the events. Additionally, she creates various communication channels with teams to answer all their questions and support them in their season.
“Everyday for the past year, Sofia helped coaches prepare for the season and keep in touch with the program,” said Laila Berchane, Program Delivery Partner for FIRST LEGO League in Morocco, in her nomination of Sofia. “She joined our organizing team last year and has done so much to advance this program and make it accessible to teams.”
“Thank you for your trust and for this nomination. I am very grateful for it,” says Sofia. “I am happy to volunteer because I can see what a difference it is making, and I personally get so much satisfaction from seeing what it is doing for the students who are a part of it.”
Thirteen years ago, Rick wanted to get his two children involved in FIRST LEGO League Jr., but at the time, there were no teams available on Long Island to join. Instead of just starting his own team, which he did, he began the FIRST LEGO League Jr. program, now the Explore Division, on Long Island with School-Business Partnerships of Long Island (SBPLI).
In her nomination of Rick, Co-Director of FIRST LEGO League Explore for Long Island, Eileen Kaler said, “Rick is the epitome of what FIRST is all about. He truly loves the program, and his passion for it is contagious when you talk to him about it. Rick made the Explore season possible with his vision and hours and hours of work, and his amazing technical abilities.”
In his own words, Rick explains why he volunteers for FIRST. “I volunteer because I enjoy seeing the impact that FIRST has on students. I have seen the development of my own children through FIRST as well as countless others as they progress through each program. FIRST has forever changed my family and provided me with an additional FIRST family as well.”
Stephen has been a long-time FIRST volunteer and this year has once again risen to the challenge as he pivoted to organize and host three virtual events for Ontario teams. In nominating Stephen, Explore Program Delivery Partner, Christine Bibic told us, “Stephen did a fantastic job at recruiting and training stellar volunteers to help with these events, worked tirelessly behind the scenes producing the online events, and communicating with the teams.”
Stephen was instrumental in ensuring the events had all of the normal reviewing sessions, but also lots of fun games for teams while they awaited their turn with the reviewers. In addition, he organized a virtual awards ceremony, continuing in the tradition of celebration found at FIRST LEGO League Explore events.
“The reason why I work with FIRST and continue to work with FIRST is I am exposed to some to some of the most incredible and inspiring people that I have the opportunity to meet anywhere, through my teams, through FIRST in Ontario and all up and down the programs,” said Stephen. “I’m constantly impressed with the volunteers I run into and the growth and learning opportunities it presents to learn from people around you and make connections and meet new people.”
We would like to thank all of the volunteers who dedicate so much of their time and resources to supporting teams and events. Of special mention are others who were nominated for this year’s award.
Honorable Mention Nominations
Ryan Buller, Kansas, USA
Michael Calahan, Texas, USA
Johannes de Vries, South Africa
Rosi dos Santos de Carvalho, Brazil
Rachel Ellestad, Tennessee, USA
Gregory Gorman, Texas, USA
Nick Hammes, California, USA
Bill Mielke, New York, USA
Bradley Neureuther, New York, USA
Keith Smith, Louisiana, USA
Janis Steinfeld, Oregon, USA
Richard Storrick, Ohio, USA