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Fort Thomas’ Katie Nzekwu, founder of Found Village, receives highest community service award in the country

By Peggy Kreimer Hodgson
Rotary Club of Cincinnati

Katie Nzekwu of Ft. Thomas has received the highest community service award in the country – the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service Benefiting Local Communities – part of the Jefferson Awards program which is known as the Nobel Prizes for community service.

Nzekwu is the co-founder and CEO of Found Village, which creates a family-like support system for traumatized teens in Greater Cincinnati, helping them develop the skills and support systems needed for a stable life.

Katie Nzekwu

She is one of five individuals from across the country to win the 2021 national award for service that impacts local communities. The award is part of the larger Jefferson Awards program which honors outstanding service in more than a dozen categories, from service by public officials and professional sports figures to service by private citizens, students and corporations.

Nzekwu was honored on Sept. 30, alongside Joan Ganz Cooney, Co-Creator of Sesame Street, who was credited with initiating television’s role in educating children, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been the medical advisor to seven presidents.

This year, for the first time, the award ceremony was virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifty-nine winning individuals and groups were celebrated in the national on-line event.

“For nearly 50 years, the Jefferson Awards has 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, those stories echo across the nation, reaching thousands of Americans and inspiring them into action.”

Katie Nzekwu was the first honoree in 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 teens who do not have that “village” of support that often comes from family, mentors and close community. Most of the teens entering the program have been in and out of detention centers, courtrooms, foster homes, shelters and school placements.

In her acceptance speech, she told the crowd “It’s imperative that we help them understand, when they come to this community, that there’s nothing wrong with you. There are things that have happened to you and you’ve had really normal responses to 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. After-school, one-on-one and community-based activities include job training, life skills, fitness, creative experiences and mentoring.

The program is designed to serve young people from age 15 to 22, but supports can continue through age 25.

Teens in the program had an 89% decrease in psychiatric hospitalizations, 90% graduated from high school and moved toward secondary education and 70% left governed custody and were reunited with their families. The program has saved the community an estimated $200,000 in services.

Nzekwu understands the challenges her participants face. At age 15 she was living in a juvenile detention center. She later earned 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 the traditional systems for teens.

The national Jefferson Awards program was founded in 1972 by Cincinnati native Robert Taft and former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Honorees are nominated for national recognition through local Jefferson Awards programs in more than 90 communities across the country.

The Rotary Club of Cincinnati administers the nomination program in Greater Cincinnati with local partners The Cincinnati Enquirer and WKRC-TV Local 12. Co-chairs of the local program this year were Doug Adams of Indian Hill and Bill Shula of Clermont County. In the past 16 years, nine Greater Cincinnati winners have gone on to receive the national award.

The Jefferson Awards program reflects the Rotary Club’s motto of Service Above Self, said Melinda Kelly, president of The Rotary Club of Cincinnati.

“We are truly honored to have had a part in bringing 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 with a mission to provide selfless service in the community and the world.

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