The Superwomen Behind USAID Food Crisis Responses

On this World Humanitarian Day, USAID celebrates the Women Humanitarians who strengthen the global humanitarian response by contributing their unique experiences, strength, perseverance, and dedication to serving the most vulnerable. Meet the superwomen behind USAID food crisis responses (and disaster responses) — who exemplify what it means to be humanitarian heroes.


REBECCA SEMMES

Rebecca is a regional Food for Peace Officer for East Africa and Kenya. She has worked at USAID for 10 years, and has served as a public health volunteer for the Peace Corps (Senegal) and a disaster response volunteer for the American Red Cross.

Food for Peace Officer Rebecca Semmes gives a woman a bowl of nutritious food at Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Photo by WFP

What do you love about your job?

I find [humanitarian] work very meaningful, and that helps me to appreciate even the less exciting parts of it. Of course one of the most fun parts is visiting projects and meeting people who are being positively impacted by our work. But I will also admit to secretly loving meetings because I’m surrounded by very knowledgeable, dedicated colleagues, and I gain a lot of knowledge and energy from working with them.

As a field officer, you see firsthand the number of people who need assistance. How do you stay optimistic about your work?

Last year I was visiting refugee camps in Burundi, and we visited a health center where they were treating children with severe acute malnutrition. It was heartbreaking. But there was one mother there who was smiling and holding a healthy baby. We found out that she had recently adopted the baby, and she was clearly overjoyed to have him. This is what motivates me to do my work — that there is such overwhelming need and we can do something about it; but there is also joy to be found in this work, often in unexpected places.

Rebecca Semmes (center) listens to refugees share their stories and needs while at Kakuma refugee camp, where most rely heavily on humanitarian assistance to get by. Photo by WFP

DANIELLE MUTONE-SMITH

Danielle Mutone-Smith is the Division Chief of the Policy, Partnerships, Programs & Communications division at Food for Peace. A longtime champion of U.S. food assistance, she has worked with other donors, members of Congress, UN partners and the global humanitarian community on food security issues for more than 20 years.

USAID’s Danielle Mutone-Smith and members from the UN World Food Program participate in a focus group discussion with refugees at Oruchinga Refugee Settlement in Uganda. Photo by WFP

What draws you to the humanitarian field?

I love that I get to work closely with people from around the world who share ideas and collectively work together to try and tackle complex humanitarian problems together.

The work we do has a real impact on people’s lives. We will never meet each of those people or know their names, but at the end of the day the actions we take, even what sometimes may feel like non-glamorous paperwork, have a reverberating effect on someone out there for good.

How do you stay motivated working on complex humanitarian problems?

The policy initiatives I work on can seem slow and small in magnitude at times, but it’s easy to stay motivated when I see their real world impacts in action. I’ve heard from mothers in Haiti how pleased they are to receive food vouchers so they can buy proteins, fruits, and vegetables for their kids. I’ve seen Syrian refugees in Jordan receive cash transfers to purchase food in local markets and this helps them feel a bit more at home. And I’ve seen bags of food procured in Uganda helping to meet the needs of refugees hosted in that country while also supporting local farmers.

It’s rewarding to know that the policy changes we achieve are making people’s lives a little better.


JUDY GROOMS

Judy Grooms has been working for Food for Peace for 34 years in various roles. During her 50+ year tenure at USAID, Judy saved a USAID staff member’s life by providing CPR.

Photo by Maggie Moore, USAID

Are there any memorable experiences you’ve had at USAID?

I served on the Ethiopia famine response in 1984–1985. It was before FEWS NET started and strife was so awful. I remember the “We Are the World” song and the Live Aid concert. It was interesting to see how aware the American people were about what I was doing. And the American people wanted to help — [they] wanted to send food on their own; churches were collecting canned goods because they saw babies with distended tummies and no clothes. And different organizations came together to work as one. No one was trying to take credit, [we worked] to get the job done.

Has it ever been difficult being a woman in this job?

I remember having to work with an important African leader who wasn’t used to dealing with women. But, I made it clear that I was a United States representative, regardless of being a woman or a man, and I politely told him so, “You came to the United States for help and I represent the United States government at this moment.” My boss later told me, “Judy, you took the bull by the horns.”


SONIA DOMINGUEZ

Sonia Dominguez is a Food for Peace Program Management Specialist and has served on multiple humanitarian responses, including most recently on the USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) for the Venezuela regional response.

USAID’s Sonia Dominguez takes a moment to chat with people temporarily living in a shelter for the Fuego Response program in Escuintla, Guatemala in 2018. The father and child survived the eruption. Photo by USAID

What do you enjoy most in your job?

I love to have proximity with the people that we are serving; whether it is talking with a mom and her kids in a community kitchen, or listening to the story of a beneficiary that survived a natural disaster, I always learn from them about resilience, hope, and priorities.

Is there a particularly memorable or rewarding experience you’ve had that you’d like to share?

I got to spend a day at the zoo with two families that survived the eruption of Fuego Volcano in Guatemala [last year]. They were invited to Guatemala City to talk about their experience. This was the kids’ first time in the city, so we decided to visit the zoo before the meeting. It was a healing experience for them and an enriching experience for me because I could spend [time] with these kids that have gone through tough times and I could witness their eagerness, wonder, and happiness for being at the zoo for the first time. In humanitarian work, you often think you are the one giving, but when you get to spend time with our beneficiaries, you are the one who receives a lot of strength, energy, and gratitude.

Do you have any advice for the next generation of humanitarians?

Make sure you have proximity with the people that are in need and suffering. There is nothing like listening to their stories. This is how I usually get the strength, energy and inspiration to do the humanitarian work [I do].

Keep reading to meet the humanitarian heroes at USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

About USAID’s Office of Food for Peace

USAID’s Office of Food for Peace saves lives and tackles chronic hunger and poverty through U.S. food assistance. We have reached more than 4 billion people with food assistance since 1954. Follow us on Twitter @USAIDFFP.

USAID Food for Peace

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USAID's Office of Food for Peace saves lives and tackles chronic hunger & poverty through food assistance. http://www.usaid.gov/privacy-policy

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