Recognizing Leadership and the Power of Music
College of Music alumna receives top award for outstanding volunteerism abroad.
Michigan State University College of Music alumna Jenny Heemstra (BMUS ’00) received the 2016 Secretary of State Award for Outstanding Volunteerism Abroad from Deputy Secretary of State Heather Higginbottom on behalf of John Kerry during a special ceremony on Nov. 10 in Washington, D.C.
Heemstra joins a class of six current winners and 104 since 1990 whose volunteer contributions have affected lives of people around the globe. Administered through the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide, the SOSA Awards are available to all Foreign Service employees and their family members.
“The work we are doing is important globally and not just in Kolkata,” says Heemstra. “I was moved to receive the award, especially from a strong, successful female leader in the government. Standing up there with other recipients who have built villages in Africa, worked with refugees from ISIS in Turkey, and mentored women in Indonesia to enter college, I felt privileged to be included in such good company.”
Heemstra was recognized for founding Kolkata Classics—a non-government organization that offers concert series, student education programs and no-cost medical assistance fairs. To make this come about, Heemstra worked with artists, city leaders, businesspeople and NGOs in Kolkata, India. Launched in 2014, Kolkata Classics empowers women, inspires underserved youth, and builds cross-cultural bridges through western classical music. See “Lifting Spirits with Music” story to learn more.
In the first year, Heemstra organized 42 concerts through Kolkata Classics that reached more than 50,000 adults and children. Eight artists, including Heemstra and MSU College of Music Alumna and Cellist Carrie Pierce (MM ’07, BMUS ’01), performed in settings that included the Kolkata slums, the red light district, and the central city. Heemstra later added a health fair component to select concerts to provide free vaccines, health checks and screenings, and outreach services to women and children.
“Jenny embodies what it means to give of yourself and your art for the benefit of others,” says James Forger, dean of the College of Music. “This esteemed recognition by the Secretary of State is well-deserved, and shows others the profound difference a single person can make.”
Heemstra moved to Kolkata when her husband, Cory Wilcox, who was assigned there with the U.S. Foreign Service. The city's rich culture and immense socio-economic divides prompted her to create the concert series with a humanitarian cause.
Heemstra is working to build the Kolkata Classics into a sustainable nonprofit. She has organized several benefit concerts during her recent visits to the U.S. Past and planned cities to include Corpus Christi, Texas, Cleveland, Ohio, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Washington, D.C. She says there is a lot of energy on the ground to continue this good work in India.
“Never doubt your ability to make a difference in the world,” says Heemstra. “Figure out what you want and don't worry about how you will get there. Miracles happen. A solution will appear.”