It all started about 65 years ago when Adele Corvin walked into a Camp Fire Girls office in San Francisco and asked what she could do to help.
More than six decades later, Corvin and her daughter, Dana, are tireless volunteers for organizations both within and outside of the Jewish community — from the Contemporary Jewish Museum and Congregation Emanu-El to the American Red Cross and United Way.
Dana is being honored next week for her philanthropic work by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation — of which she has been a board member and officer, and Adele a former president. Dana will receive the Robert Sinton Award for Distinguished Leadership during the Federation’s annual Day of Philanthropy on Tuesday, Nov. 7.
Among her many volunteer positions, Dana is president of the Mount Zion Health Fund’s board of directors. She used to be a candy striper at Mount Zion hospital (now UCSF Medical Center at Mount Zion), and would see her mom’s photo on the wall as president of the lady’s auxiliary.
“We really have a passion for doing this, and it’s been an unbelievable enrichment to our lives,” Dana said. “It can often be frustrating work, but it connects you to your community. And we’ve been pretty blessed, so it’s nice to have that feeling that you are touching people’s lives in hopefully an important way.
“It’s something that just enhances our lives,” Dana added. “No one talks about tzedakah, no one talks about philanthropy.”
Actually, Adele, 95, and Dana, 68, will talk about such topics at the Day of Philanthropy when they team up to lead a 45-minute workshop that will address the importance of philanthropy, leadership, the Jewish community and their motivations.
During the interview for this article, both said there’s no tendency toward philanthropy in their DNA and insisted the volunteering impulse was not passed down from mother to daughter.
In fact, Dana said, when she was a youngster she never realized her mom was out volunteering when she was in school, because Adele was always home in time to make dinner and help out with homework.
Adele graduated from UC Berkeley’s College of Commerce (a predecessor of the Haas School of Business) and worked for three years at Standard Oil in the mid-1940s before getting married and quickly having three children.
“I recognized that with three kids in only four years, I needed something for me. And I was married at a time when wives didn’t work outside the home,” she said. “My husband never came home with business, I never came home with my volunteer stuff, so I don’t think the kids ever realized what I was doing.”
That need led her to the Camp Fire Girls, which she had enjoyed as a child, and ultimately to decades of volunteer work that included her 1980 founding of the San Francisco Adult Day Services Network, which provided services to seniors.
Though she never pushed Dana to follow her path, Adele said it has been a bonus to serve on boards with her daughter.
“It’s very gratifying. It’s enriched my life,” Adele said. “And to see Dana enjoying it and contributing to the community, it means a lot. In addition, having our paths cross on many levels sitting around the table, it is enjoyable.”
Dana said her mom never made volunteer work an obligation, though she saw how much fun her mother was having building friendships in the community.
If I want to live in a healthy community, I have to contribute.
“People my entire life have come up to me and said, ‘Your mother is so great … and she’s accomplished so much,’ and I kind of take it in and go, ‘Oh, that’s really nice,’ ” Dana said. “But when it’s your mother you don’t think of it. I get that she’s remarkable if I intellectually think about it.
“I just think that it’s really allowed us to have another aspect of our life that — this sounds trite — we really have fun doing this, we really enjoy the work, we really enjoy learning things about the agencies in the city and the work that’s going on and the people that are trying to solve the challenges we all face.”
Adele, who received an honorary doctorate from San Francisco State University in 2013, has served on the boards of more than 20 nonprofits and was board chair of the Bay Area chapters of the Red Cross and United Way.
She is currently the president of the Morris Stulsaft Foundation, which funds organizations that work to improve the well-being of Bay Area youth. Dana is secretary of the Stulsaft board, on which her brothers Scott and Stuart also serve.
Dana currently is on the board of Jewish Vocational Service and the San Francisco State University Foundation, and is a past board member of J., the Red Cross, United Way, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and others. In 2011, the Federation honored her with the Judith Chapman Memorial Women’s Leadership Award.
A former special-education teacher in San Francisco, she was vice president of a family-owned plumbing supply business until selling it in 2006.
Angela Ingel, the Federation’s director of marketing and communications, pointed out that both Adele and Dana are “changemakers.”
“Truly honoring the l’dor vador [generation to generation] tradition, Adele and Dana are exemplary role models, whether it be serving on committees, working with volunteers or sharing critical, challenging and unique ideas,” Ingel said in an email. “And like mother, like daughter, both admiringly do this with style, directness and a pragmatic approach — not just talking about what needs to be done, but rolling up their sleeves and doing it.”
Both Adele and Dana said it’s been important to them to volunteer in the general community, not just in the Jewish community, and said there should be no split between the two.
“Being part of the general community made me more aware of the social problems we have, and how great the challenges are,” Adele said. “If I want to live in a healthy community, I have to contribute. And if it’s going to be healthy, it’s going to be healthy for the Jews.”
Dana agreed that involvement in the general community is essential, and pointed out that “Jews have really played an important role in building San Francisco.
“You need to serve; Jews need to be out in public,” she said. “You talk about how to fight anti-Semitism? Well, you need to be sitting around the table, solving community problems with everybody else. And I don’t think you can do that if you just restrict yourself” to the Jewish community.
The Corvins clearly enjoy each other’s company, as evidenced by their repartee during a joint interview. At one point, when Adele was asked what she found so satisfying about volunteer work when she was a mother of three young kids, Dana interrupted to joke:
“Not being with her family!”
There’s no mystery to devoting a lifetime to volunteer work, the Corvins said. “One thing just leads to another. If you say yes and you’re enthusiastic and you’re engaged, then you’re asked to do the next thing,” Dana said. “We smile a lot, and I think we’re kind of nice to people, and I think we’re funny a little bit. It’s not deeper than that.
“We show up to everything, if there’s an event or someone being honored,” she continued. “It fills your life in a really wonderful way. My mom and I end up at a lot of the same places having a great time, so it’s turned out to be one of the ways we spend time together.”