Written by: Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Steensen
Standing poised and confident on the blue stage of the American Legion Spirit of Service Award ceremony, Petty Officer 2nd Class Geneva Cornelius holds a trophy that is a symbol of her dedication to helping others. She beams with pride in sharing the stage with the American Legion national commander, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the Battle of Iwo Jima, and the Old Guard as a representative of the Coast Guard. A moment, she said, she will never forget.
“What remarkable deeds we all have done and sacrifices we all have made for our families, for our respective services, for our communities and for one another within, and for, our great nation,” Cornelius said in her speech.
Cornelius, an operations specialist, was selected as the Coast Guard recipient for the 2016 American Legion Spirit of Service Award. This award was presented to an enlisted member from each branch of the armed forces during the 15th Annual National Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, in late August 2016.
She earned the award by distinguishing herself through her dedication in countless hours spent volunteering and improving the lives of others in Kodiak, Alaska, while she was stationed at Coast Guard Communication Detachment Kodiak.
“The primary reason why I began volunteering was because, as a single parent, I wanted to show my daughter that you can always do and be more no matter what,” said Cornelius. “I always strive to be the best example I can be for her because, in a lot of cases, I am the only example she sees on a consistent basis. I want to ensure that I set my goals and aspirations high so that she can emulate that. I want her to see that volunteering and giving yourself to others is a blessing and something to look forward to.”
Cornelius gave back to her community with an extensive range of organizations: the Kodiak Women’s Shelter and Resource and Crisis Center; Child Care Advocacy Center; Kodiak Area Native Association Providence Hospital’s Hospice and Palliative Care Center; Chiniak Bay Long Term Care and Assisted Living Facility; and the Coast Guard’s Partnership in Education Program.
“I met so many great people and became a part of so many groups and organizations that I still network with today,” said Cornelius. “There is so much support and an addictive feeling to want to serve others. This is what I joined the military to do. I want to help others, I want to support whatever community I am in. Though it may sound cliché, I truly enjoy doing for others and what better way to do that than to volunteer!”
Cornelius spent a lot of time tutoring the third grade class at Main Elementary School in vocabulary, science and reading. For many of the students in Kodiak, English is a second language. She said it felt especially gratifying to know that she was helping them assimilate and understand the English language, literature and American culture.
“The same goes for my time at the Middle School, High School and remotely located elementary schools I visited during the Santa to the Villages event,” she said. “The students were very receptive, enthusiastic, and appreciative and I could not have asked for a better educational experience. To me, there is no greater feeling than the investment of time for children.”
During Santa to the Villages aircrews and volunteers load the helicopters with gifts to bring children toys and holiday cheer in remote Alaska villages. While at the villages, Cornelius also conducted eye exams providing children and adults with vision tests to identify early signs of optometric anomalies.
One of her most cherished and challenging experiences was her time at the Hospice and Palliative Care and Long Term Care Facilities, where she provided end-of-life support services to clients of all ages and their families who are experiencing terminal illnesses with life expectancies of less than a year. She offered patient companionship, support for family members and home visits. Additionally, she volunteered her administrative services and knowledge of safeguarding patient medical records and personal identifiable information.
She said her time with the patients and clients gave her a sense of perspective on life that, as a young person, she had never considered. It was an eye opening and charitable moment for her during each visitation.
Cornelius became very close to one of her hospice clients in particular and she said it was very heartbreaking when it was time for her to transfer.
“When you go in with an open heart, you don’t realize how much you do for people until they tell you,” said Cornelius. “My hospice client also knitted me a pair of slippers with a matching blanket as a going away gift. It was very emotional for me; I didn’t want to leave. We were like family.”
Cornelius is now stationed at the Navigation Center in Alexandria, Virginia. Her time in Kodiak inspired her to continue seeking opportunities to help others and set an example for her daughter. She said her heart still lies within the act of volunteering.
“I am in the process of signing up for courses to learn American Sign Language so that I can further my reach to those hard of hearing,” she said. “This was inspired by one of the patients from the Long Term Care Elder Home. He wasn’t deaf or hard of hearing but he had a stroke and had been unable to speak since that incident. During each visit he taught me more words and phrases. He had a great spirit and was one of the kindest people I had ever met.”
Cornelius actively participated in over 50 unit and local community events during her time in Kodiak, dedicating countless hours during her off time to community service and enthusiastically pursues more opportunities to help others where ever she is.
Her giving spirit has brought resources, services, joy and light to countless lives, yet Geneva Cornelius has cracked the code that helping others in turn helps you find true happiness.