Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A chance for good works: kindness needed in Silicon Valley

I said a wish and a prayer for the Indian tech worker, name badge still on, stuck in the middle of El Camino Real tonight. Especially memorable: the driver of a souped-up Mercedez-Benz blaring his horn as he turned in two directions at the stop light and screeched around us. 
"Agro" is what my angelic brother Carl says when a person rages irrationally. That's what the hothead in the slate blue Benz was today as I commuted home from the main drag near Stanford University. As you can see in the photo, a not-so-old Toyota had stalled and needed a tow. I was the lucky recipient of multiple honks and screeching tires as I didn't move fast enough to get out from behind said broken-down vehicle. 

Funny, yesterday on my way to work I noticed a car about the same age with flashers on, blocking a turning lane. Impatient drivers squealed around as the woman inside glanced in every direction pleading for help on her cell phone. In the old days, before we all had phones and other gizmos in our cars, people would actually offer to push a disabled vehicle to the side and out of traffic. Everyone in the jam would be ecstatic to have the barrier removed while the do-gooders could demonstrate their superhuman strength. No such luck this week for the two drivers in need of car repairs, Silicon Valley is in too much of a hurry. 

When my children were small I purchased a clunker VW Vanagon for $3000 and it was a dream come true--until the first break down, and then the second and beyond. I began to believe in angels when an elderly gentleman pulled over within a few feet of my van as it stalled on the freeway--me traveling pregnant with a toddler and a soon-to-be kindergartener. The flanneled retiree casually approached from his 1960s Chevy pickup, tow rope in hand! Like I said, that was the good old days. Thank goodness my son, who drives a late-model Range Rover and may someday need a lift, lives far away from our "agro" bunch here in Silicon Valley. He might just get a push instead of a blaring horn.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Give a Hand to Homeless: Bring Back Community Spirit to Silicon Valley

            
photo credit: http://www.communityworkinggroup.org/ochousing.html

           I work in a high school that is located essentially across a swanky shopping center from a homeless shelter. The InnVision Opportunity Center is a local resource for families, and sometimes single individuals. Palo Alto is a magnet for people in need of shelter, with the train close by and more services available than the neighboring towns. If you were a woman in need, and could get no response from the folks at the shelter, what would be your next alternative to ask for help? Maybe Stanford Hospital, the police department, or even a nearby school?

            One late spring evening I stayed late to catch up on my work. It was the day after our school-wide service day, one of my signature efforts for the year. A former student poked his head in the door, introducing me to his girlfriend whom he was touring around his old alma mater. Then he said in passing, “And, oh, by the way, did you know there is a homeless lady down the hall in the kitchen?” The entire building was closed, except for a door leading from the staff lounge/kitchen to the lacrosse field where our team was playing. I took my time, because I wrongly felt that I had already done my duty by orchestrating the Service Day activities for hundreds of students and dozens of nonprofit organizations.

            But “the meek shall inherit the earth,” and I had no right to discriminate between this woman's situation and the needs of the organizations our students had worked to benefit. The thought that there was someone with no place to sleep that night haunted me out of my office and into the hallway of the Tower Building.

            “Hi, are you looking for someone?” I inquired of the unkempt middle-aged woman sitting at a table in the staff lounge.

            “Hi, I’m Colleen. I got turned away at the shelter and I’m looking for a place to stay tonight.”

            I stepped out of the kitchen, into the doorway looking onto the lacrosse field. Nightfall brought unusually crisp temperatures tonight.

            “I’m not sure if I can help, but I’ll try. Do you have any identification? A cell phone?” Colleen showed me the contents of her purse, which contained a passport, comb, and other items that looked of little use. “Hang onto that passport, it’s like gold for you right now.” Colleen told me she knew that it was her only worthwhile possession. She also explained that the reason she had no belongings was that she had gotten mixed up with a bad person and she had to flee. We talked about whether she needed to go to the hospital. She told me she had already been, and they had discharged her. At this point, I could tell she had mental health issues and I knew I was way out of my element. Colleen needed to get to a place where there were professionals who could counsel and guide her—not a high school staff member.

            In the end, I rallied two students, Audrie and Claire, by Facebook alert, as they just happened to be over at the lacrosse match. Claire is a regular volunteer at the shelter, so between her and the friend, and myself all calling shelters around town on a Friday night and wishing for someone, anyone to answer the phone—we finally found a place for Colleen. We loaded her into a taxi with instructions for the driver to call us when he had safely delivered her to the shelter downtown San Jose.

            We had given this tender woman our cell phone numbers, email addresses, but never heard from her after that chilly springtime evening. I was grateful that she didn’t have to spent that particular night outside—but regretted her problem wouldn’t be relieved with one taxi ride. There are others like Colleen, such as Cathryn, who came to the very same hallway exactly one month later. I have a story about Cathryn too, rolling her suitcase through the Tower Building. I tried to shy away again, but knew this situation was staring me in the face for a reason. By connecting mentally challenged and middle-aged Cathryn to a couple of fellow shelter seekers, I watched the spirit of community facilitate good works as the more seasoned pair warmly offered to escort Cathryn to the shuttle that would deliver her to a warm bed for the weekend in East Palo Alto.

            It’s a season away, and I think about these two ladies a lot, and the profound message affecting me, as with other experiences helping others from the shelter-seeking population. Silicon Valley didn’t used to be the way it is, with every man (woman) for himself or herself. I grew up here when we were buoyed daily by true community spirit.  I wish for that former sense of care, when the valley wasn’t driven by manic entrepreneurs in search of the next big idea. The first concept that helped us grow into what we’ve become started with welcoming all and taking care of each other. 

NEWS FLASH Fall 2014: Board of Supervisors takes action

Palo Alto's Downtown Streets Team Success Story!

Get Involved: Community Working Group with Opportunity Center, Palo Alto

Get Involved: Volunteer at InnVision in the Bay Area

LifeBuzz: They Asked Homeless People To Write Down A Fact About Themselves…

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mother and Son Good Works Challenge

There are so many stories I could have written over the past six months, but have been a little out of sorts. Last week, my newly-married son, Brody, and I had a really nice conversation over the phone about "transformational experiences." I had told him about a somewhat negative response I received from a twenty-something woman when I tried to inform her that we had almost crashed due to her malfunctioning car headlight. My intention had been to "help her," but she took offense and snapped something out of her window across a couple of lanes of traffic. The rest of the way back to my daughter's home, a half-hour drive in pitch dark, I considered this young woman's defensive response and how I might have made a difference for good, instead of turning the situation negative for both of us.

Brody and I talked about the ideal response to the headlamp situation, based on the teachings from his favorite coach Tony Robbins and on my goal of spreading goodness in the world--especially when things are not easy in my own life. So, here is our exchange, a mother-and-son challenge for each of us to handle an otherwise aggravating circumstance, and make it transformational for the person or people with whom we feel annoyed in the moment. We planned to have such an experience within the week, watching for a situation in which we would go the extra mile to create change.

First, Brody's story of transformation...He's a hip twenty-something, and I'm an English teacher--so I couldn't refrain from adding caps and punctuation. :-)

Congrats momma on a very good experience!!  I also had an experience at Home Depot. We were walking to get into the checkout line and noticed a couple of people that were in line got out of line and went to the self check out. When we got into the isle for checkout there were 3 young children counting change on the counter trying to buy candy. They were each going to make their own purchase with their own money which was admirable but the old familiar feelings wer boiling inside and I began to notice my mind wondering why they were doing this at home depot? why right now? This isn't a grocery store or candy store so why are they taking so long. And they need to be more considerate of people who were shopping at home depot for the right reason. But after noticing those thoughts and remembering our conversation I had two choices, do what the other people had done before me and angrily walk out of the line to the self checkout area or take the more difficult road so I decided to act quickly before I thought about it too much and so I told the cashier to put all of the candy the children were buying on our purchase and I would pay for their candy. It was gratifying to see the look on the kids' faces and I made sure to tell them that the next time they purchase candy they all needed to share the money they were spending because I had gotten there a little late and one of them had already purchased her candy. They were very sweet kinds and thanked Laura and me about ten times before running out the door and returning to their home which I hope wasn't too far away so they didn't cross any major roads. 

And next, Momma/Bina's...



I don't love going to movies alone, but realize I'll miss the good ones if I don't venture out. So, Friday night (date night, for some) I went to the late showing, of "The Hundred-Foot Journey." It was playing at a big complex with smallish inner theaters, and I was very happy to arrive early and spread out across a few seats with my purse and smuggled-in popcorn. The theater seemed like it was filling up, but there was still lots of room below the railing and walkway--closer to the screen.

Just as the trailers finished, a middle-aged couple stood near "my" row and the woman asked, "Would you mind moving down so we can take those 2 seats?" I looked down at all the empty seats below the railing, and looked at her date. He seemed a bit embarrassed that she was asking someone to move--after the lights had already dimmed. He just looked across the theater, and in the direction of the empty seats. She had a very insistent look on her face, and said, "I'll go blind if I sit down there."

I really, really wanted to say "No." But, I thought about our conversation, and knew I had to oblige--and find a way to go the extra mile here. So, instead of grumpily shuffling over, I looked up, smiled, and said, "Sure, no problem!" We all became very cozy in that row, with the guy right next to me wondering what had happened all of a sudden. :)

The next move could have been the real transformation, but I got shy and didn't do it. I thought, to meet the challenge I had with my son, I should offer them some of my smuggled popcorn. I thought about it a few times--so it was the right thing to do. But, no, I chickened out on that part. Instead, I opted for chatting with them at the end of the movie. It was a lot more coziness than I was comfortable with, but surprisingly I did regret not making the food offering. I'll have to try another challenge this week to get to that point, for sure.

Finally, Brody's wife Laura added this inspiring Facebook snippet today. 

I'm grateful to a son who created change within my own heart by talking about these ideas with me, and for being the mature, deep-thinking young man that he is. The challenge of looking for an opportunity set a positive, sweet tone for me during an otherwise difficult week. Thank you, Brody!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Day Service & Random Acts of Kindness Week

Find inspiration at Paly.net/Service
Happy Valentine's Day and Random Acts of Kindness Week
This world is hard on everyone, rich or poor, famous and fortunate alike.  I love this KSL article/blogpost by writer Katie Lee: "What if we said every good thing that came to mind?" It reminds me of my 2009 Palo Alto Online article/blogpost "Stop, Look, and Listen."
Did you know it's Random Acts of Kindness Week? We can never say or do too many niceties, on Valentine's Day or any day. In my experience, there is no greater service, no amount of money that can outdo thoughtfulness or kind words towards another person in our midst. I was impressed by hearing about the heartwarming gesture of my son-in-law, Mike, as I talked to Sheridan on Facetime this morning. Her young husband took the day off from his job as a medical center electrician, in order to make breakfast in bed for her and to help out at home. How thoughtful is that?? 

To spread kind deeds and loving thoughts today and every day, think of a small or large, simple or sweet act of service that you can do for a spouse, partner, family member, friend, or perhaps a passerby. As we share kindness, it comes back to us tenfold. Click on the stories above or links below to share the hope found in good works, for Valentine's Day and throughout the year!   


And granddaughter Braelyn is, too...
My niece Mackenzie is spreading sweetness today!

Still looking for inspiration? 
Check out these resources and ideas to get started 
on your good works quest.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Good Works by Gratuity

Because I only made a couple of shopping trips for the holidays, I missed the chance to carry out a personal tradition of "a dollar in every kettle" for the Salvation Army bell ringers. I only remember seeing three kettles, so they benefited by my whopping $3.00 holiday contribution. Others could give more, I'm sure, but every time I see a volunteer ringing that little red bell people seem to be scurrying to avoid the opportunity. Why is that? Are we all just too shy or embarrassed to be seen giving back? 

GiveBackFilms recently made a series of short videos about the benefits we get when giving and receiving. From waiters, to hotel maids, homeless and more, the stories are brimming with hope. Who wouldn't be elated to discover hundreds of dollars where they might have wished for one or two. My question to you is, why do we have to see such astronomical examples of charity when we have chances all around us to do good in smallish increments? When was the last time you ordered takeout food, sat at a restaurant, had your bags carried by the shuttle bus driver? Sure, you could give these entry level workers a dollar or two, but how about five or maybe ten? Is there something you could give up this week in order to make an minimum-wage worker's day a little brighter? 

Last week, I was in Salt Lake City celebrating the birth of my granddaughter Evie and I took her auntie, my middle daughter Meredith to lunch. We paid for our lunch at the counter, and the servers would then deliver our soups and salads to the table. The manager was a little dazed when I asked him to re-print my receipt. "I need to add a gratuity," I said. So he complied and presented me with the receipt, to which I added a tiny ten percent gratuity for counter service. He looked at me surprised and said, "Thanks so much!" After our food was brought to the table, Meredith commented to me about the restaurant's notoriously bad service. I told her that I made an extra effort to tip the counter help and she wondered why I would tip for poor service. Just then, the restaurant manager came out with a free plate of macaroni and cheese with fruit cup for my three-year-old granddaughter Braelyn who was with us. She had already eaten at a previous stop, but was really happy to have her own plate and consumed it even on a semi-full tummy. She felt important, and I could see the restaurant manager still beaming from my small acknowledgement. I told Meredith that's why we pay it forward, because when people feel appreciated they generally do a much better job and both parties benefit. 

All four of my children, who are now grown, have worked part-time and sometimes even full time while attending college and/or career training. Those measly paychecks don't begin to cover expenses, nor do they reflect the arduous labor these young people contribute to the economy. Next time you eat out, pick up take-out food, have your bags carried, or receive service from other entry-level workers' efforts, consider dropping a dollar, five or ten. This will show your appreciation, and as a "pay it forward" good work you'll encourage these helpers to do their best--everyone wins!      

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Gratitude for Life's Little Surprises



I began the holiday season with a sense of wonder at three
unexpected little surprises in human nature, which gave me a feeling of hope for the year ahead. The previous year had been hellish, to say the very least, and my family has been praying for better times. The first turn in human nature was my observation of a VTA bus driver calling out to one of our students at Gunn High School as I pulled into the parking lot. The student didn't seem to be responding, and in what seemed to me slow motion, the driver checked his mirror, smiled, and hopped off the bus with the teenager's forgotten backpack in hand. No big deal, right? Unless, like my kids and myself, you've ever left something on a bus, train, plane, never to see it again. This observation of unexpected behavior warmed my heart.

The second experience I had was in skiing at one of my favorite resorts, Solitude, in the Wasatch Mountains with my sister, whom I affectionately refer to as "Martha Stewart," and her husband. For as long as I can remember, "Martha" and I have tried to present ourselves as timelessly fashionable, but in a competition she would easily win. Our mother endowed us with this artistic yet classic style, which can lead us to sometimes "assess" others for their own fashion sense. Rarely complementing but often commenting to ourselves about others (terrible, I know), my big sis jokingly suggested we give scores to those on the ski hill with the best outfits. Since we were skiing at a low-key, locals-only resort we kept striking out at spotting any style at all on the slopes. Until she found him, a pint-sized first grader looking chic and metropolitan in his colorful parka and pants. And then came the surprise. Instead of rating the little man's outfit, my style-maven sis skied up and complemented him, "Hey, did you know you're the best-looking skier at this resort?!" He stared at her befuddled, but I know he won't forget this random act of sweetness from a fellow skier. We can all use more of that--ski hill or not.

The third surprise came when I had loaded up the car, and was starting the long trek back across the hazy Nevada desert to the Bay Area, to resume my several jobs on two high school campuses. I stopped at Chevron in the small town where my daughter's family lives to fill up the tank and get an extra-large soda to keep me awake. Walking into the sparkling station, I saw the attendant sitting on the counter looking rather lazy with his extra-large, skin-colored ear guages. I shuddered in fear at his appearance until approaching the register with my drink. Completely out of character, he motioned me out the door and said, "Happy New Year, the soda's on us!" I looked back at him in amazement, and I could see a more than slightly satisfied grin under his strawberry blonde beard. 

Because we had such a difficult year in 2013, I decided many months prior that the only way to survive would be to keep a gratitude journal. I've written nearly every day about small moments and experiences that lifted my spirits, often catching me off guard like the generous actions of the bus driver, "Martha Stewart," and the ear-guaged gas station attendant. Staying open to these often unnoticed surprises in human nature has allowed me to feel more deeply the joyful experiences as they come throughout the year ahead. We've started off in January by welcoming sweet Evie Mae into the family, and due to my new-found faith in humankind I am more grateful than ever for the safe arrival of a healthy baby girl to my second child's loving family.



Watch for the goodness in others, and make time to jot down the gratitude you feel when you witness any of these simple blessings in your life--even if it's far off in the distance. By striving to see goodness in those around us, family members, friends, even strangers, we can learn to be a little kinder in our trials and the "survival modes" of life. Take a minute to express your gratitude, do a small and/or unexpected favor for someone you do or do not know, give a compliment to a stranger; all of life's injustices melt away as we persevere each day to "do the right thing." 

For Baby Evie Mae and for YOU: How about some inspiration to believe there truly is goodness in this crazy world of ours? Watch Kid President's latest video, "A Letter to a Person on Their First Day Here." 
Need a gentle push to feel hopeful about the world and the people around you? Read "Oh, the Places You'll Go," by Dr. Suess.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Serve Today to Honor the Veterans in Your World


I have a different perspective of the military from many of the families at Palo Alto High School. It's fitting that I'm the military point of contact for our students, being that I'm a former Navy pilot's daughter. However, when I schedule lunchtime military rep visits to our campus I'm reminded of the negative connotation of the military back in the 1970s around the Bay Area. It's too bad, really. I can think of several students brave enough to pave their own path and go against the usual post-high school route into military service and career training. 

My dad, Carl H. Steffens, Sr., was given a tremendous boost when he joined the Navy after graduating from tiny Wayne State Teacher's College in Nebraska. He was trained as a pilot and made the fortuitous choice to come to the Alameda Naval Base, living in my favorite town--Palo Alto. From his Navy service, he pursued a career in the pioneering world of semiconductors, eventually becoming VP of Marketing at Fairchild/National Semiconductor before his untimely death at age thirty-nine. 

I am so proud of my father's choice to serve his country. I am abundantly blessed that Dad saw his way out of a bleak upbringing in Spencer, Iowa and college in Nebraska, to raise his family here in the "Valley of the Heart's Delight." Today is a great day to honor him and other veterans who have served our country. Do you know a veteran? Send him or her a note of appreciation. Better yet, spend some time visiting and listening to their stories on this Veteran's Day. Each has a unique tale to tell; if only I could hear it from my father.