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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

Lives of Service

By Kathleen Reynolds

By any measure, Napa sisters Mara and Tama Adelman are accomplished. Mara has a Ph.D. in Communication, has been a professor at Northwestern University and Seattle University, a Fulbright Specialist in Ethiopia and China, taught aboard Semester at Sea and for Sony Co. in Japan. She is a speaker at conferences and author of numerous trade articles and several books. Tama is a Registered Nurse who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Rather than resting on their laurels when they reached retirement age, both decided to devote themselves to helping others.

Tama travels worldwide 10 months a year, volunteering with Hands on Global, an organization that serves disadvantaged, underserved and displaced people by providing medical support. Mara enjoyed making jewelry as a hobby and now makes jewelry and teaches jewelry making classes, sending the profits to Hands on Global.

“Making earrings is one of my passions, but how many can you wear?” asks Mara. “My dear friend, Nikki Stessin, owner of Beadworld in Seattle, donates supplies which enables me to give 100% to Hands on Global. Plus, as a retired professor, I still love teaching. It’s so much fun to teach a skill or an art form. So different from theory.” 

She estimates her jewelry classes, lessons and parties generate at least $5,000 a year in donations to Hands on Global.

“My jewelry found philanthropy. It’s beyond my wildest fantasy to convert a hobby into a fundraiser. It was a natural fit. I never have burnout.”

“As children of the 60’s, it was: ‘Be part of the solution’ and, ‘If not now, when?’” says Mara. “In Jewish tradition it’s tikkun olum, ‘to repair the world.’ It’s not even an overt act, one simply does it and asks for no acknowledgement. It’s up there with eating and sleeping.”

Tama knew of Hands on Global through one of her good friends, who was the executive director.

“The mission of Hands on Global is to bring healthcare to unserved areas throughout the world,” says Tama, who has volunteered with the organization for 10 years. “As a retired nurse and lifelong traveler, their mission fit with how I wanted to be in my retirement–doing service to those in need and immersing myself in different cultures.”

Hands on Global sends her where her skills are most necessary. She’s currently volunteering in the Ukraine. 

“I worked in the refugee camp on Lesvos (in Greece) for over five trips lasting from two months to six months,” Tama says. “The Greek government decided to close the camps to volunteer groups otherwise I would still be working there. I did not go to the US/Mexico border as my Spanish isn’t good enough to work in the medical setting. Ukraine had a different calling for me. As a U.S. Army nurse who previously served in a war zone, I knew the types of injuries soldiers would be sustaining. In addition, part of our family came from both Kiev and Odessa.”  

Growing up in a Marine Corps family as “military brats,” they moved every two years.

“Then at the tender ages of 11 and 15, dad left the service, and we settled in San Francisco in the early 60s,” says Mara. “We were at a very impressionable age and San Francisco was definitely not a military base. It was difficult for our parents, who were unaccustomed to the mantra ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.’”

They consider Napa their home base. A third sister, Mara’s twin, resides in Mexico and the eldest lives in Murphys.

“We love it in Napa. We built a compound for the sisters, where we could retire. As political activists, we call it ‘The Home for the Unrest.’ We feel very privileged to live here, but also Napa Valley is a very caring community. People of Napa have been amazingly responsive to our call for needs for the Syrian and Afghan refugees and especially for Ukraine. They’ve donated over 1,000 toothbrushes, over 40 pieces of luggage to take medical equipment, even baby onesies for Mexico hospitals. We’ve been very touched by our community’s responsiveness and are very grateful.”

The website for Hands on Global ( talks about volunteers and how they can “protect their hearts” from getting emotionally involved with the needy patients.

“Sometimes you can’t just sit with the pain and let it seep through you—by crying or feeling paralyzed by grief,” explains Tama. “That was my response my first time working in the refugee camps. I knew that was unhealthy and not sustainable coping. I reframed my coping. I now focus on the person in front of me and doing what I can to help that one person—the starfish metaphor; you can’t save all the starfish, but you can save the one. In addition, I have an active breath practice I learned through yoga.”

“My belief is we all just need to do something of service for others-this path fits me,” continued Tama. “I work with a committed core of experienced healthcare workers who are also experienced world travelers. We work as a team, taking on the challenges of providing healthcare in very challenging circumstances throughout the world.”

“We think opportunities to repair the world abound,” says Mara. “We read recently that volunteerism is down, even among retirees. But given the state of global affairs, how can we not do anything? That’s not an option.”

When not helping people, the sisters help our furry friends by running the San Pancho Animales fundraiser auction, helping Mexican street dogs by providing clinics for animal sterilizations, emergency medical help and rescue. 

“We call those who bring the dogs to the U.S. for adoption ‘Flight Angels,’” says Mara.

Mara and Tama want to remind everyone that time’s not up as you get older.

“We want to reinforce that once you turn 80, there are other additions to golf, Mahjong and cooking,” says Mara. “People should think about what inspires them to get out and do something. Even small actions make a difference. A meaningful life of service is an asset to yourself and your community.”


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