They humble us, these Citizen Award winners. They’re changing the world while going to school or holding down jobs or when they could be off cruising around it. We know that self-interested, corporate forces are working full-time, by the thousands, spending millions, trying to bend public decisions in their interest. And all that the rest of us have on our side is people like Ann Akland, Ashley Forte, Gene Galin, Caleb Southern and all the people organizing against a war in Iraq.

Or is that all? Is there really nothing that those of us who are stretched way past the snapping point can do? Is there no way to make a difference while coping with little kids and aging parents and dirty laundry and tense hours at work hoping the ax doesn’t fall? Those anti-war protests are a good example. We could just show up. Hundreds of thousands of Americans just doing that would make a huge difference.

And the rest of the time, between protests and trips to the grocery store? We don’t have to be Citizen Award winners. We just have to be a little bit more like my neighbor, Jenni Owen. She’s 35 and has a high-pressure job as planning director for the new James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy at UNC. That’s when she and her husband, Todd, aren’t taking care of 8-month-old Macey and 4-year-old Carter. Hey, all that’s changing the world right there. Take a break.

Except that Jenni also is on the board of Genesis House in Durham, a transitional shelter for families with kids that offers child care and a place to live. She’s been doing it for six years, going to a meeting or two a month, working with the executive director, making phone calls to line up volunteers and contributions. Her commitment ranges from an hour a week to maybe, once or twice, 10 hours a week.

Oh, and she and a group of friends also have organized a giving circle that picks a local organization and offers money and other resources to help in any way they can. No one gives more than $25 or a couple of hours a month. They’ve chosen Walltown Children’s Theater this year.

That’s it. A few hours a month. Twenty-five bucks. About as much money as a nice evening out. So what’s stopping us?

“Ultimately, it’s fun,” Jenni says. “It’s not totally out of duty here. It’s fun to do, you meet new people from other parts of the community, and you get educated.”

If you’re looking for a place to start, try Genesis House. They can use volunteers to help kids with homework or just to hang out with them while their parents run errands. They need cleaning supplies, linens of all kinds, pillows, art supplies, kids’ paint, construction paper and area rugs.

Call them at 683-5878. It’ll only take a few minutes. And you’ll feel like an award winner.

This year’s winners:

Ashley Forte
: A Durham high school student has emerged as one of the state’s most effective fighters against teen smoking.

Ann Akland:
To the rescue of Dix Hospital and Wake County’s mentally ill population.

Gene Galin
Creating real community out of a virtual one in Chatham County.

Caleb Southern
: From the NYC music scene to battling the state DOT over Eno Drive.

The Anti-Warriors
: In a year consumed by war, Triangle peace activists helped keep debate and dissent alive.