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Hail, Unpaid Leaders!

Napa Valley CanDo connects all our invisible threads




It's seldom a paid position, the positive rabble-rousing that creates social sustainability. The ones who take on the work can often be mildly surprised to find themselves standing up and making a difference by getting others to stand up and make a difference. There's really no official job description for this.

Hilary Zunin was actually out of a job when she decided to energize her community and launch, with cofounder Grania Lindberg, the social change known locally as Napa Valley CanDo. CanDo is a handy acronym for "community action network developing opportunities," an effort to get people happily launched into community service. And it's working. The members of CanDo show up to work all over the Napa Valley, making a noticeable change in the spirit of the community and creating an excited, admiring buzz. Zunin and Lindberg do much of the organizing work to match community members with community needs and to keep enlistees informed of volunteer opportunities via email blasts.

Zunin didn't expect to be an organizer. But she didn't expect to end her 20-year career as an English teacher, either. That came to a decided halt when No Child Let Behind crept into her classroom and began to dictate what and how she was allowed to teach. Zunin lamented that the law forced her to abandon books in favor of an anthology and recoiled at official suggestions that if she ran out of time for instruction on Romeo and Juliet she could simply teach the first few acts, since that was the only part of the play covered on the state test.

"This was not the teaching I committed myself to doing," said Zunin. "So I resigned, at 56. At my resignation dinner, I remember saying, tearfully, 'I don't know what I'm going to do next. I just want to do some good.'"

That was almost three years ago, during the presidential election campaigns. While deciding what to do, Zunin signed up to work for Obama's campaign. "I hadn't been an activist since Vietnam, and then I was a street medic during street demonstrations," explained Zunin. "I hadn't worked on a campaign since Kennedy's when I was 10 and I licked stamps!"

But Zunin volunteered anyway, and through that experience—where a few of her key teachers were young people in their 20s and 30s—Zunin saw for herself how to "empower people to do something they thought was impossible," as Zunin recalls her amazement. "I said, 'My God, what we're doing works!'"

A month after the election, Zunin and other campaign volunteers gathered and cooked up an idea to serve the community. They called it 10-10-10 and challenged each other to send an invitation out to 10 people, asking for $10 in cash or 10 food items for the Napa food bank. Those people would then in turn send it along to 10 more people, and so on down the line.

"In two weeks, we raised $10,000," said Zunin. "We were astonished." The group decided they didn't want to waste what Zunin calls the "excitement and energy to make meaningful change in the community." The 15 volunteers who met in December 2008 became a force of 50 just three months later, and are now more than 600 members strong. The group has a number of leaders heading issue groups, and CanDo is busy in all sectors of the community.

CanDo now includes opportunities for community service by kids, who have set out to collect 10,000 pairs of shoes for the nonprofit Soles for Souls by January 2011. An ambitious goal? These kids know they can do it. And because there are new leaders springing up all over the organization, Zunin knows that one day she can step aside, leaving her legacy in good hands.

"What I do now more than anything is connect people," explained Zunin, smiling with job satisfaction. Her unexpected, unpaid career these days does her community good, just as she'd hoped to do when she left teaching. "This makes me think of my favorite quote," Zunin says, brightening. The quote is from Herman Melville: "We cannot live by ourselves, alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads."

To volunteer for Napa Valley CanDo, email Hilary Zunin at or call 707.252.7743.

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