Gary and Jeff Dunker have dedicated years to enriching the lives of those young and old. Gary, a longtime Palo Alto elementary school teacher, launched a food distribution program similar to Meals on Wheels for families at Duveneck Elementary School and, after retiring, volunteered for more than five years in after-school homework programs at schools in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. She also has served as a hospice respite volunteer with Pathways, a board member for the Peninsula Center for the Blind (now Vista Center) and a board member at Gamble Garden. She has volunteered with Avenidas for 35 years, raising money for the Senior Day Health program (now Avenidas Rose Kleiner Center) and has participated in cognitive activities with the center's participants for the past 14 years.
Jeff, a lifelong athlete who was named All-American Track and Field in shot put at Cal Poly in 1969, spent his early career teaching physical education to local children through the Palo Alto school district's Enrichment Team. For 37 years, Jeff has spent each October decorating the outside of the couple's Palo Alto home for Halloween. It's an annual tradition that attracts about 1,500 trick-or-treaters, including many of his and Gary's former students, now parents and sharing their childhood tradition with their own children. Jeff also has served as a board member for the nonprofit La Comida, which provides hot meals to local seniors.
Together, Jeff and Gary volunteer at Trinity Church in Menlo Park, where Gary serves as commission chair of the monthly luncheon series and Jeff assists with the event.
The Weekly spoke to Gary and Jeff about their volunteer work and the impact it's had on their lives and the community in which they live. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:
PAW: What brought you to Palo Alto?
Gary: I came to Palo Alto from Santa Barbara to attend Stanford when I was 17 and have lived here for 58 years, still driving my '66 white Mustang! I was teaching at Crescent Park School when our Realtor said he had a move-in perfect home to show us. When he parked in the driveway across the street from my kindergarten classroom, I said, "No way, I am not living across the street from where I teach." And here I am, 49 years later, feeling incredibly fortunate to have been able to teach and live in Palo Alto. All our friends from 40-plus years are here. We have a history that comes from the stability of longtime relationships and community. It is a community that cares about each other, takes care of each other in times of joy and sorrow.
PAW: What's your proudest achievement?
Jeff: When I was 43 and my dad was 85, we competed in the Northern California Masters Games (a multisport competition for athletes over age 30) that was in 1991 at Stanford University. My dad and I both won first place in our respective shot put and discus events. Dad had volunteered for 15 years to coach the shot put and discus athletes at Woodside High School after I graduated. My own shot put record fell to one athlete that Dad coached. His volunteerism encouraged me to continue to volunteer for future Master Games and to coach shot put and discus at Gunn and Menlo Atherton high schools.
PAW: What's the most rewarding part about your community work?
Gary: Knowing that you are making a difference in your community by volunteering is so rewarding. Working together and creating something worthwhile all build camaraderie with both the organization and your friends. I especially like when I have the opportunity to create my own programs with the organization's goals in mind. I did that with the Rose Kleiner Center (creating cognitive games for people with dementia), also with tutoring and with Trinity Church, where I have organized a monthly speaker luncheon series since 2007. Individualizing my volunteer opportunities gives me a chance to use 35 years of teaching experience.
Jeff: My most rewarding volunteer activities occurred when I first started as a substitute teacher. I made the acquaintance of several teachers who were planning to provide camping and backpacking activities for their classes and needed a willing and credentialed volunteer. Providing kids and young adults with their first-time exposure to the high Sierra and Yosemite and seeing their wonder and then appreciation of their amazing surroundings gave me satisfaction that I still enjoy today, some 50 years later.
PAW: What makes volunteering with your organizations worth it?
Jeff: Working as a member of the La Comida board was very satisfying knowing that I was helping to provide a social venue for seniors to share a low-cost midday meal with new and longtime friends. My father was a devoted diner at these meals and inspired me to volunteer with La Comida.
Gary: Volunteering with my organizations is worth it because everyone is grateful and supportive. No matter what the job, I leave feeling appreciated by both the staff and the participants. Thank-you's always feel so rewarding and invigorating.
PAW: What advice do you have for others looking to volunteer?
Gary: When you first get started, choose just one volunteer program that speaks to you. Try doing it with a friend or two. As time goes on, new opportunities arise and you may change your focus. Even when I worked for 35 years, I always volunteered with some organization. If you have kids, it is fun to find family projects to do together.
Jeff: Find an organization you're passionate about. Then, once you've chosen it, make it your focus and plan on long-term service.
Read more stories on this year's Lifetimes of Achievement honorees: