Changing the World, One Small Step at a Time
Back in New England, Zoe Kopp and Thom Namaya usually took a break from the long, cold winters by volunteering. For years they worked with local leaders of small community development projects around the world that they support through their nonprofit, GRACE Cares. But in 2020, COVID lockdowns prevented international travel and they spent some time in St. Petersburg. Just a year later, the two moved here, trading their 27-year home in Vermont on 13 acres of land for a house in the Old Northeast with an art studio out back.
Why the move? They fell in love with the city’s charm, waterfront, the arts, and the strong sense of community. But it also came down to the weather. “I needed more sunshine,” Zoe joked as we chatted on a sunny, but windy afternoon at a local coffee shop.
The husband-and-wife team like to say they brought a strong spirit of social activism with them from Vermont. “We do what we can,” said Zoe, which seemed to me to be a vast understatement given that the two have traveled the world, together and separately, to bring health education, social justice, and economic advances to people in developing countries.
Zoe and Namaya met in 1990 when they were in their mid 30s, already well established in their respective professions. “I was living in New York City and while I was doing volunteer work to maintain some hiking trails, I met a woman who mentioned that she knew someone I might want to think about hiring. He sent his resume. I didn’t hire him, but six months later we were married,” Zoe recalled with a smile. “We were destined to meet.”
Zoe grew up in Tarrytown, New York, and moved with her mother to Cape Coral in 1969, finishing high school in Fort Myers. She went on to Florida State, earning a degree in classical archeology. Although she wasn’t to be an archeologist, she spent a fun couple of months on an FSU-sponsored archeology dig studying early Etruscan civilizations in the hills of Tuscany, and later went on to live in Italy for a few years.
After Italy, Zoe returned to Tallahassee, where the direction of her life took a 360-degee turn. She became politically active in the women’s holistic health movement, went back to school to get a nursing degree, and in 1981, founded North Florida Women’s Health and Counseling in Tallahassee. At the time, the women’s health movement was still in its infancy and the clinic was very pioneering. “We had advisors who were members of NOW [National Organization of Women]. Our initial funding came from professors at FSU who bought shares in the clinic,” said Zoe.
In 1985, she went to Mardi Gras, staying with a friend in New Orleans, whose roommate was on a medical mission in Africa for USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. Looking through his books, she had one of those “aha” moments. It wasn’t long before she was pursuing a master’s degree in public health at Tulane University, with internships in Guatemala and Columbia. “Tulane changed my life,” said Zoe. “I wanted to continue to improve people’s lives, learn about people around the world, and visit all those places I read about in National Geographic as a child.”
After getting her degree, she joined International Planned Parenthood Federation and developed guidelines for the organization’s reproductive health initiatives around the world. Her next step was CARE International, a global humanitarian agency, where she oversaw health education projects in Asia and Africa. One of her many memorable experiences was teaching people in rural Thailand farming communities how to live safely with AIDS. “I felt privileged to meet so many people from so many backgrounds. I saw how much more in common we all are than we are different,” said Zoe.
In her next job, as a consultant to USAID, she designed and evaluated health programs in Latin America and the Caribbean, wrote instructional manuals on women’s health, family planning and urology, and spent time in India, developing continuing education training for the Indian Medical Association. “I met such incredibly strong women physicians in India who were working under such challenging medical circumstances, like no clean running water,” said Zoe. “Things we take for granted.”
In 1997, she switched to the corporate sector, taking a position with Pfizer, where for 15 years she led international epidemiologic research teams and health education efforts, among other projects.
Like Zoe, Namaya’s always been committed to making a difference globally. During the Vietnam War, he was a corpsman in the Navy, stationed in Jacksonville, and then served in the Peace Corps in Yemen, followed by time with Catholic Relief Services in Morocco. He’s also a former nurse practitioner and a Doctor of Homeopathy. “We think of ourselves as world citizens,” said Zoe. “We each speak Spanish, Italian, and French, and Namaya also speaks Arabic.”
On New Year’s Eve 2000, they made a different kind of resolution. They had always dreamed about working together on small-scale projects that larger organizations don’t often tackle, like digging a well so villagers don’t have to walk five miles for water, or helping women purchase a sewing machine to start a small business. “We thought, ‘Let’s start our own nonprofit,’” said Zoe. “We decided that we didn’t need to win the lottery to help people with this type of community project. It took two years to get our 501c3, and in 2002, GRACE Cares was born.”
GRACE stands for growth, resources, action, community, and empowerment. “It’s a small organization with big results,” said Zoe. “We work with local partners to help plan a project that the community determines will improve their lives, and then we help them raise funds for it.” Projects are underway in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Kenya, India, Zambia, Vietnam, and Sudan for everything from safe drinking water to financial literacy for women and educational materials and books for school children.
When I stopped by the couple’s home for a visit, Namaya showed me an art project he was working on. He’s an artist, poet, musician, and storyteller, life-long pursuits that he’s dedicated to a greater agenda focused on social change. He’s the founder of B4 Peace, an international arts initiative with a message of unity, human rights, community engagement, and peace through art, sculpture, video, dance, and theater. His anti-war, pro-peace poem, One Hundred Flowers, has been published in 114 languages and hangs in churches, meditation centers, and peace centers worldwide.
His current project, titled Agent Orange: Do Not Forget Me, will be installed at the War Remnants Museum in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. In 2020, he and Zoe spent several months in Vietnam and Laos on an artist’s residency, “Journey of Forgiveness,” related to the war and Agent Orange, whose toxic residue continues to harm both the people and the land.
For now, the couple are enjoying their new home, but they’re not resting. Locally, they’re volunteering to “Get Out the Vote” by knocking on doors. Zoe is a new docent at Sunken Gardens, and Namaya, who plays classical guitar, performed at the inaugural HONNA Art in the Garden tour last April.
In the fall, GRACE Cares plans a week-long service trip to the Dominican Republic. Zoe invites anyone interested in participating or learning more about their nonprofits to visit gracecares.org and b4peace.net.