Thursday, December 31, 2009

Volunteering Opportunities Pay Off

There's a benefit to doing good. In the New Year some of us; young, old, and young-at-heart, are trying to navigate the job market. Take some advice about getting involved to make a difference by Debra Donston-Miller, who wrote this article for The Ladders: Volunteering Opportunities Pay Off.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What's Right with Today's Teenagers?

I remember having so much pent up energy when I was fourteen years old. My mother and my own children don't know this, but I got in trouble almost every week in Sunday School due to fidgety hands and influencing my newfound mischievous friend Michelle Clawson to distract the teacher with our hand games and abbreviated cheerleading moves. We couldn't contain ourselves, and the extra attention from the frazzled teacher was fodder for our expressions of dexterity. We progressed from the Sunday School teacher to the youth leaders as they tried to corral us into performing as Hukilau dancers in a musical extravaganza meant to unify the congregation. We would last on stage just long enough for the dance, and the rest of the time we would practice more cheerleading moves (this time with full-body effect), chase younger boys or harass the other girls who were going along with the program.

I don't know why I behaved this way in ninth grade. I had been painfully shy all my life--the teachers even said so on my elementary school report cards. In the first two years of middle school I only focused on being a perfect, straight A student. Ninth grade was the first and only year I got a B+, it was time to get my wiggles out. Luckily, the adults around me stayed positive, especially my mom. My father had passed away unexpectedly three years earlier, and my sisters were headed off to college; my brother had started to find his own friends. By junior year, we moved again and I was feeling quite alone. Changing high schools was sobering for an energetic girl who had finally come out of her shell. I had to reinvent myself again, this time finding connections through community service. Volunteering with other girls my age at El Camino Hospital gave me confidence, even though it was only once a week. Returning to school the next day I wouldn't worry so much if I sat alone or with too few friends in the quad at lunch; I knew I was needed someplace else, just a few miles away at the same hospital where I was born and where my father died.

I didn't realize the healing effect of my "candy striper" experience until last fall when I was training for a long cycling event and I rode past El Camino Hospital countless times on my way to the foothills of Los Altos. I could hear Mom's encouragement to go ahead and sign up as a volunteer: "I used to be a 'pink lady' [adults in the auxiliary], you should try it." Until recently, I still had the candy striper uniform in my memory chest, with the name tag pinned to it. That time in high school was the beginning of my realization that we are never alone, even when times are bleak; reaching out to others in need can make us forget our troubles, even if for only two hours a week. Sometimes that's enough.

These days, as I observe the good works around me, I am astounded by the energy and intelligence of the youth at Palo Alto High School. Three decades ago, at nearby Homestead, I knew of only a handful of students who did volunteer work, and just two or three clubs on campus that sought to make an impact through service. This generation is different; they are motivated to change the world in creative and thoughtful ways, whether individually or in their club activities. Some have accumulated over four hundred hours of community service, with activities like raising guide dogs, taking care of cancer patients, or producing shows for the community Media Center. Others have traveled to far away places over the summer: Afghanistan to build schools, Sri Lanka to help women in poverty, and Japan to coach young soccer players. Most of these students are pursuing their interests, not merely racking up hours for credit; all are learning about other's needs and forgetting their own.

Teens who volunteer have the same challenges as the rest of us, but they are empowered to solve problems and to remain flexible when encountering the vast array of unfulfilled needs beyond the world of high school. How can a student truly understand the devastation of Hurricane Katrina without actually visiting the region and realizing that his own efforts can encourage others his age to help? That was the inspiration for Jake, who went on to start "American Disaster Relief," a Paly club that looks and sounds more like a national humanitarian organization. With Jake's intelligence and ability to rally his friends, maybe someday it will become such.

Some students track their hours for credit on their transcripts, or to earn the President's Award for Community Service; the most passionate students I know, however, have no idea how much time they've spent. The idea of an award embarrasses them, but I wish they could be convinced. With the help of a parent volunteer and her son, Paly student Charles Zhang, we've been able to organize and track the community service hours of several hundred Paly students who applied for the President's Award during the last two years. This semester at Palo Alto High School, eighty-two students received the bronze award for 100-174 hours of service, fourteen received silver for 175-249 hours, and twenty-six earned gold for 250 or more hours (14-year-olds and younger get gold for 100 hours). At California's current $8.00 minimum wage, these students would have generated a base of $143,261 in labor alone. This is what's right with our teens today; maybe they don't worry about tomorrow as much as the baby boomers, but they do make the world a better place by sharing their time and talents freely in the community. They put their energy into making a difference

Thursday, December 10, 2009


The train crossing near my home became a mourning place during the last six months, as four local teens chose to end their lives on separate occasions. The first one, in May, devastated me so much that my blog "Stop, Look, and Listen" was dedicated to the subject of reaching out to others and trying to find a place where we are needed in the world. Movies like Patch Adams come to mind, a story based on the true life devastation of someone who eventually found himself through giving to others. I am one of those who found herself through reaching out to resources around me; it wasn't easy, especially when I experienced personal crises and sometimes found it hard to just get out of bed. Service is not a cure-all, fix-all, but it can help, as we strive to connect with others--especially when things are bad.

In response to the tragedies at the train crossing, a group of dedicated parents and community members formed a group called "Track Watch," to keep a constant eye on the crossing and let the students know there are caring adults who want to make sure more teens won't succumb to this violent end. I spoke with one of the parents recently, as she sat bundled up in her fleece jacket and ear muffs, a lawn chair nearby. Her husband drove up with hot cocoa. She had signed up to volunteer because she knew one of the students who had passed away, and she just wanted to do something to show she cared. Other parents joined the ranks for similar reasons; they felt a connection to the lives of these young people and wanted to make a difference in the outcome of the tragedies. With the round-the-clock vigil since the last suicide, I felt a sense of care and warmth every time I crossed those tracks in my car or on my bike.

The Palo Alto Police Department has now placed private security patrols at the crossing, but I miss the sweet feelings of concern I perceived from the volunteer parents who came to stand vigil night and day for over a month. Palo Alto Track Watch is still working with area professionals and agencies, with an emphasis on gathering resources and information where high school students and their families can go for help. The volunteer focus has changed slightly, leaving observation of the crossing to the paid security guards, but the mission has not: saving lives by vigilance.

  • To find out more about Track Watch in Palo Alto, CA:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Making Memories

Some holidays are meant to be remembered more than others. Last Thanksgiving wasn't my favorite because my family was apart, so I was determined
this year we would celebrate life's bounties together. My mother, "Grammie Joan," decided to host a gathering in idyllic Sun Valley, Idaho, where we used to spend our summer and winter vacations. My two grown children, Brody and Sheridan, drove there from Salt Lake City, while the girls and I journeyed from the Bay Area in a caravan with my brother's family. We had a blissful time at the foot of Bald Mountain skating, bowling, and even skiing on thirty inches of early season man-made snow. My kids often tease me for seizing impromptu photo opportunities with very few technical skills on a digital camera. I keep taking the photos, but never have the time to download them from the camera or manage them on my computer. What ever happened to Kodachrome?

After ineptly attempting to capture some of our Sun Valley memories throughout the weekend, on our last night I realized this trip was my chance to get a good family photo for holiday cards and gifts. There was no time to schedule a professional, but I had noticed at the skating rink that my brother-in-law, Courtney, has recently taken up a new hobby. He carried around his large Nikon lens while the rest of us snapped candids with our pocket-sized Costco specials. A surgeon in his early fifties, he somehow finds the time to tinker. I don't like to ask people for favors, and I rarely ask him; I didn't think he could spare the time on his much-deserved vacation. Happily, Courtney agreed to follow me and my children outside along the snow-lined walkway on a starlit early-winter night.

My sister Katie (whom I call "Martha Stewart"), offered to come along as the photographer's assistant and facilitate to be sure we looked model-quality with the main lodge for a backdrop.
Kate is our family's style maven, so I was very happy to have her along. She and her sweet husband shared their good works and photography talents to create a special shot of me and my four children before Christmas. Even better, Courtney did not delay in sending me the product of his efforts. He followed through by immediately downloading the photos to my laptop, so now I have serious motivation to put those cards together on time!

Do you have a passion for photography? Our high school has an amazing photo program, thanks to a very dedicated and talented teacher, Margo Wixsom. However, as Dr. Clyde will attest, it doesn't matter if you are trained; you can do good works with photography if you simply devote the time. Ansel Adams, the prolific California photographer of the last century, dedicated some of his earliest work in the 1930s to wilderness preservation of the Yosemite Valley. Thanks to his book, "Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail" and his work with the Sierra Club to promote public awareness through breathtaking photos, Yosemite was designated a national park in 1940. Whether you publish a groundbreaking book and testify before Congress, as Mr. Adams did, or take photos of your extended family and friends over the holidays, your well-trained eye can serve those around you. But be sure to share those photos, and don't just keep them on the laptop like I tend to do.

Creative Service Ideas with Photography
  • Make greeting cards for the elderly. Take a nature walk near your home and get photos of the beauty around you. Print the pictures at home, or at an inexpensive photo lab (I use Costco). Use a paper cutter to fit your photos to size and glue to the outside of plain paper cards or folded cardstock with envelopes. Distribute your homespun cards as singles or in sets of 5 to the elderly in a nearby care center. My church group recently donated handmade cards to Meals on Wheels, and they were a huge hit! We included stamps, but a bag with a special pen would also be a nice touch.
  • Host a charity photo shoot for the cause of your choice. The Advanced Photography class at Palo Alto High School recently joined the Olevolos Club on campus to support the Olevolos orphans in Arusha, Tanzania, A $40 tax deductible donation is requested in exchange for a portrait with the donor's dog and his or her best friend by Palo Alto photographer Cathy Gregory. For examples of this project, check out: .