an elderly woman in a stylish black jacket sits flanked by a vase of white orchids and japanese artwork
Adele Corvin (Photo/Norm Levin)

Adele Corvin reflects on a lifetime of community service

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This is the first in a series of profiles of Jewish men and women who build and sustain our Jewish community, supported by a generous donation from Carol and Norman Traeger.

“Life is different. The whole world has changed,” says Adele Corvin. “It is moving faster.”

The nonprofit world has changed as well. “But it’s still going to be needed for what it provides,” she says.

Corvin would know. The lifelong San Franciscan has helped guide nonprofits for more than six decades, and although she insists she is slowing down at age 96, she remains filled with energy and compassion, and still surpasses most others when it comes to volunteering. Just lining up this interview was a challenge, as her calendar is so full.

Among highlights of her service record:

She was instrumental in founding the San Francisco Adult Day Health Network nearly 30 years ago, bringing together seven agencies that “worked together [on] fundraising and developing brand new services for elders,” she says. “I had the good fortune of chairing it and getting funding for it and watching it develop.”

She adds humbly, “I was able to get all the foundations to work together,” then adds with a laugh: “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

She served as president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, and has helped guide the Jewish Home of San Francisco, the Diller Teen Foundation, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the JCCSF. She also was president of the Bay Area chapters of United Way and the Red Cross.

“Adele is a quintessential San Francisco Jewish leader,” says Sam Salkin, the Federation CEO when Corvin chaired the board in the early 2000s. “She was a leader both in the Jewish community and the community at large.”

And her strength? “She’s a consensus builder,” says Salkin, now executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel. “She has a diversity of go-to people whose pulse she checks, and at the same time she doesn’t allow consensus to slow down what they want to do.”

She was named a lifetime director by the S.F.-based Institute on Aging, and the 1943 UC Berkeley graduate has received a number of prestigious awards, including an honorary doctorate from San Francisco State University in 2013 for her community service and philanthropy.

But as she sits in the living room of her stately Nob Hill residence — where she has set a plate of cheese, crackers and homemade cookies on a table for a reporter — the trim, impeccably dressed activist doesn’t want to talk about herself. She’d rather reflect on the nonprofit world past and present, and the city’s current needs.

Corvin began volunteering when her three children were little, joining her first board when her youngest (now 65) was just 2 months old.

“If I wasn’t going to work” — and most wives back then were expected not to, she explains — “I thought I’d better find something to do.” She found volunteering educational, socially engaging and fun.

Also, “I think it’s very important for the Jewish community to be part of the total community.”

Though her efforts are broad-based, the Congregation Emanu-El member, who started Sunday school there at age 8, retains strong ties to Jewish institutions.

Of the Jewish Home: “I give them a great deal of credit,” she says, calling the renamed and revamped Campus for Jewish Living “really exciting.” She knows it will fill a need. “In the next 10 years, we’re going to see such a growth in the aging population …”

Corvin calls the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco “a role model for others,” and applauds innovative organizations such as Urban Adamah in Berkeley. She commends S.F.-based Jewish Vocational Service for its relevant role and “outstanding” leadership. Federation is still evolving, she believes, “going through a very serious strategic planning process to see how they can best serve the community.”

Looking back, Corvin points out major shifts in fundraising, such as government funding, which “changed the atmosphere” for nonprofits. Nowadays, she likes how grant-making organizations such as S.F.-based Tipping Point Community and crowdfunding operations like GoFundMe have enhanced giving opportunities.

Corvin speaks fondly of her early volunteering days. “I made a number of friends” at Mount Zion Hospital (now UCSF Medical Center at Mount Zion), where she became president of the women’s auxiliary. They worked in the gift shop, on fundraisers, in the coffee shop, and helped on the floor.

From one agency to the next, “the joy of working with the staff … was enormous for me,” Corvin says. “I was learning all the time.”

Corvin is heartened by the strides made in providing food, clothing, shelter, medical and social services to those in need. But she knows there is a long way to go and is especially concerned about young people. “Today we see the homeless youth on the streets, and hopefully we’re scratching the surface in helping to provide housing, meals and counseling.”

The 1939 graduate of George Washington High School in San Francisco laments the state of local schools. “I think the saddest thing I’ve seen in my lifetime is the demise of our public education. San Francisco had a very good public education system and very few private schools … All economic groups were educated together.”

But, characteristic of her can-do approach, Corvin also expresses positivity. “I have a grandson doing Teach for America in an Oakland high school. I’m delighted he’s doing it.”

Though her efforts are purely altruistic, Corvin has set an excellent example for others to follow, starting with her own family. Her daughter, Dana, has been honored for her volunteerism, and along with brothers Stuart and Scott serves on the board of the Morris Stulsaft Foundation, which funds organizations that help Bay Area youth. Adele is board president.

“She’s a role model for generations,” Salkin says.

And Corvin’s answer to the inevitable question, “What keeps you so young?”

“I’m lucky,” she says. Her father lived to be 98.

“I play duplicate bridge,” she adds with a smile. “And through volunteering, I’ve met so many people and learned so much about what’s going on, [things] I never would have known otherwise.”

And what keeps her going? A loving family and lots of laughter, she says, and “I have places to go.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.