Sunday, December 5, 2010

"We Are All Homeless"

Bob was looking for a service project idea for our church youth group, so we brainstormed options within a tight time frame--a Wednesday night during the next few weeks, from 7-8:30 p.m. There aren't too many agencies that can use help at that time. I had given him and a friend who is a Boy Scout leader the same leads to try: serve dinner at an Innvision shelter, sort donations at Second Harvest Food Bank, go to the Family Giving Tree and do warehouse work, or gather treats and supplies for troops in conjunction with Operation Shoebox. It sounds easy to pull together a simple service project for a Wednesday night, but it really takes at least a month of planning; coordinating with the organization and with the youth takes some time. Luckily a local organization, Innvision, has taken over management of several shelters in the Bay Area and they have a dedicated volunteer coordinator. After Bob filled out an online volunteer opportunity request, she called him back with a group assignment.

The designated night arrived and I figured it would invigorate my work-drained soul to join Bob and the youth group at Innvision's Loaves and Fishes Family Kitchen. We would serve dessert and sing Christmas carols to the men who would be staying in the shelter that night. Logan printed off the lyrics so we wouldn't get stuck after just one verse. We all met and loaded up into cars to make the drive downtown. When we arrived it was a little chaotic, as the coordinator must have missed a step in communication to the supervisors. They were a bit rattled to work outside their routine, as dinner had already been cleaned up. However, a large jovial man named Emmanuel was willing to rally the daily residents for a post-meal cookie and cider buffet accompanied by "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells."

The kids seemed a bit uncomfortable at first around the strangers as they set out their abundance of chocolate chip, oatmeal, snickerdoodle, brownies, Rice Krispie treats, on platters and plates. But just when I wondered how I could help lighten things up and make it fun, one of the men called out, "We're all homeless!" It was a deep message for me during the holidays, though the kids later suggested he was stating the obvious. No, he was a smart guy, and his inflection was exactly that: All of us are homeless in a sense. Nothing is secure in this world. I'd heard this before, it's a saying that keeps the indigent looking up and the proud looking back. With his declaration, I started to see these men, rather than a bunch of guys in a shelter for the night, but individuals with hopes, dreams, and wishes just like ours.

With cookies heaped onto plates and hot cider poured into plastic cups--nearly hot enough to melt--our group began the carols. One spirited gentleman realized he could sing along. "I'm engaging them," he told Emmanuel with a childlike smile. Another man in a perfectly clean white tee and khakis would neither engage in carols nor partake of the treats. Finally, toward the end of our visit I noticed he had filled an entire paper dinner plate full of cookies. The one next to him smiled. "These are real, homemade!" As we gathered our supplies and prepared to leave, I asked Emmanuel how often the residents get homemade cookies and desserts. He said hardly ever, and to have a visit after dinner was out of the ordinary and extra-special to these guys. Their Christmas tree would be set up the next day and this was a perfect way to set the tone for the holidays.

As I sit in a cozy living room reflecting on our little service project last week, I am listening to Michael McLean's "Forgotten Carols," and the song "Homeless." I think about Emmanuel and the guys at the Loaves and Fishes shelter. We can never take our circumstances for granted, not during the holidays nor during the rest of the year. The gentleman was right, we must remember that unpleasant things can happen to any of us. They've happened to me, and they've happened to people I know. The only way to remember how lucky we are is to keep reaching out to those who have less, and when we get outside of our comfort zones they reach back out to us. They "engage us" and remind us of what is truly important in life; sometimes all it takes is a plate of cookies to step back and realize how blessed we are and how much we have to give.

Interested in Bay Area service projects during the holidays and the rest of the year?
These organizations can always use your help!


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Last-minute Volunteers

Most volunteer jobs require training or some commitment, but you can feel good in a heartbeat by just paying attention to those around you. That's what three sophomore students did for me today. I was swamped, and nearly in tears this morning to think the job before me would last into late night hours, after the family dinner and birthday party for my stepson Logan. The day whizzed by, I tried not to notice the clock as it crept closer to 3:30 p.m. That would be time to go pick up supplies for the dinner and pick up my daughter from her job interview and head home at rush hour.

First Elizabeth was determined to alphabetize a stack of 200 letters. She had so much "fun" that she asked if she could invite her friend Adriana. They both decided it would be faster if Jennifer joined them, so we started an assembly line of the papers to be delivered. First sorting, then stapling, folding and taping. The girls enjoyed bantering back-and-forth, with me chiming in whenever I had a clue what they were talking about. The sweetest part was when Jennifer asked, "Don't you have any help to do this? Like, what would you do if we weren't here?" I told her I had already planned to take it home and stay up late, knowing the papers had to be delivered to 200 students on Friday morning. "Wow," she said, "that makes me feel really good that we could help."

And that's all it takes to feel good sometimes. Just pay attention and be willing to lend a hand if you've got some extra time. The girls stayed with me for fifty minutes--just long enough to sort through most of the papers and to be ready for tomorrow. As we finished the birthday dinner at my house tonight, I took my dog Maxie for a walk, caught a falling star, and packed my bag for a weekend getaway. None of this would have been possible without the help of my last-minute volunteers at school today!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Students Do Make a Difference by Volunteering!

Students at Palo Alto High School documented more than 17,000 volunteer hours this semester with the President's Award for Volunteer Service! There were 129 recipients Fall semester, with another 75-100 applicants who will receive their award in the Spring. The best part about my job is observing these young people who find their passion through volunteering and community service, contributing their talents and energy with no remuneration to make the world a better place.

Community service and service-learning are important aspects of a balanced education, and it makes you feel good along the way. Find something you really care about, and devote some energy to that by volunteering. Check out the groundbreaking Do Something College Survey, showing the nation's leading colleges look for students who are engaged, who show leadership qualities and creativity in community service--not just students who rack up hours for "credit".

Go to:

Then read
this article from Leif Erickson, of Palo Alto's Youth Community Service. We ALL agree that student-driven, interest-based community service is the way to go.

Click on:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

23 Volunteers and Counting

October was another jam-packed month at Palo Alto High School. Finally I came to terms with the truth that the older I get, the less I am able to juggle and the sooner I run out of energy; it was time to sincerely ask for help. The volunteer coordinators at our College and Career Center graciously agreed to issue a plea at the Fall training meeting to see if a few parents would be willing to help with our "Get Involved" student community service program and our "Excellence" Career Month Speaker Series. I made a simple breakdown of tasks and took names and numbers at the back of the room. Thirteen asked to help with community service, and another five with Career Month. Combined with last year's returning volunteers, that brought my team to twenty-three active and engaged parents who were willing to take on the school year's activities.

After working at such a manic pace last year, I hesitated to even get started with these willing souls, but just over a month later I could attest that volunteers are some of the most productive and capable people around. It doesn't hurt that we are in the heart of Silicon Valley
and across the street from Stanford University--there is an aspect talent and education here. But I have seen the same mentality in Salt Lake City, Utah where I was one of 23,000 registered Winter Olympics volunteers in 2002. No matter what the occasion, give a volunteer his or her choice of jobs and they will astound you. We divided up the workload into categories: events, marketing, bookkeeping, database management. When volunteers sign up for jobs they enjoy, their contributions are high-quality and far beyond minimum expectations. I've learned over the years not to ask a meticulous person to manage the big picture or an entire event, and vice versa. We are all happiest when doing what we enjoy, where we have an aptitude and some level of interest.

This is the concept we are trying to instill in our students in the service-learning program at Paly. When you take on a project, volunteer in a specific area where you are actually interested; don't just show up to get credit for time served. Interest-specific volunteering produces meaningful, high-quality results for both the volunteer and the organization served. This can lead to increased self-esteem, finding a sense of purpose in one's work, and discovering or exploring talents and passions. The Do Something survey ( substantiates the fact that high school students are better off developing creative projects on their own, or dedicating their service to just one meaningful cause, than various disjointed projects with no personal relevance to the volunteer.

With parents devoting their energy in their personal areas of strength to benefit students, I hope our young people will be similarly inspired to give of their time in a way that adds purpose and meaning to their lives. We are all better assets to the community when we get involved in projects that inspire personal growth. I am thankful for twenty-three volunteers and counting!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Back to School Service

If you think spending a summer week on the beach in California guarantees a sunburn, try La Selva Beach. Lots of happy memories were made during my childhood when we visited a family friend's beach house, but we often had to be creative with our time as the fog was stubborn and tried to ruin our vacation. The beach houses didn't have great television reception in those days, so we spent our time playing board games inside and building forts in the sand just outside the house. When the sun did come out, we screamed upon entering the chilly Pacific water but seeing blue sky encouraged us to stay in the surf until our lips began to change color. For a long-overdue family gathering a few summers ago, we rented some of those same beach houses where we had our favorite vacations in the 1970s.

Since my first thought of La Selva was "brrrr," I packed a few wetsuits and board games, with supplies for beach-side campfires and roasting marshmallows. It would be just like the good old days!
Except it couldn't; the houses are all now equipped with multiple televisions and stacks of DVDs, and kids no longer resort to board games for entertainment. We did have a mostly foggy week after the first day at La Selva, so it was challenging to keep everyone busy. With my idealistic views of what a beach vacation should be, I tried to rally my children and some of their cousins but finally gave in and let them stay up late a couple of nights watching videos. I figured they could get it out of their system, then they would be more willing to play board games with me and build camp fires. Except they weren't. The kids spent just enough time in the water to be tired and cold, then all they wanted was to cuddle up in front of the friendly t.v. set.

Finally, on our third day at La Selva I had to drive to Palo Alto and back, which caused me to realize that it was twenty degrees warmer and perfectly sunny just a few miles away on the other side of the mountains from the beach. I couldn't change the weather at our location, but I could bring back a little project for the kids to work on to make the week memorable and not accompanied by quite so many videos. I had seen a display at a favorite breakfast hangout, Hobee's, advertising a charity drive to gather backpacks with school supplies for needy kids of all ages: The Family Giving Tree. I knew my own children and their cousins could relate to this project, as our family had students in various levels of grade school, middle school, and high school.

When I brought back the request cards for a backpack from each family, the kids were pleased with the diversion at least. I assumed they would head to Walgreen's with parents or Grammie in tow to purchase the specified supplies, but they took it a step further and scoured the neighborhood at La Selva on a door-to-door donation request! With cash in hand and a little help from us parents, the cousins were able to assemble the backpacks within a day or two. They brought the bulging packs to me with labels affixed, "5th grade girl," or "10th grade boy." No longer did my children and their cousins look like fogged-in zombies with square eyes from too much television viewing; they had an unmistakable glimmer, the kind that comes from doing good works. Hopefully, La Selva will be a part of their conscious childhood memories, punctuated by the time they gave something back while on their summer vacation.

Check out these cool good works school supplies organizations and ideas!

  • San Jose/Silicon Valley Area: Sunday Friends Back to School Program, Yearly in August.
  • San Francisco Bay Area:
  • and Staples Back to School Drive:
  • National: AARP/Create the Good "Equipped to Learn" campaign:
  • Some individual backpack donation projects: /1-25-2006-87290.asp
  • Another backpack donation drive, this one in Florida:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Staycation Summer: Good Works Provide Family Fun!

What more could I do after moving, getting married, and absorbing another six members into my family? We are working on
blending this summer, looking for fun things to do around town on a budget. In line with my passion for service, my favorite activities have been provided by volunteer-driven community benefit organizations: The "Tri for Fun" series triathlon in Pleasanton, "Jazz on the Plazz" in Los Gatos, "Shady Shakespeare" at Sanborn Park in Saratoga. As I continue to work on solutions to the problem of not enough service opportunities for the students at Paly, I'm amazed at how many "Staycation" activities are provided by the volunteer efforts of those around us.

Tri for Fun started twenty-six years ago with a handful of volunteers helping to mark the course and pass out water cups, the organizers hoping to inspire exercise for good health. This year, the summer sampler for would-be triathletes is accomplished by a small staff at On Your Mark Events...and 114 volunteers! I'm a veteran road racer, but this was only my second triathlon. I didn't get a chance to interview those pleasant helpers who gave me water and orange slices, but the ones who cheered for us as we swam, biked, and ran seemed to enjoy their service more than those who just did the job. As I completed the last mile of dirt trail in my swimsuit, I thought how miserable I would have been without the support of strangers in my new sport of choice.

Jazz on the Plazz is managed by the Los Gatos Music and Arts nonprofit organization, to promote appreciation for jazz and to make it accessible to the community. Since my mom was out of town, we got her VIP tickets and enjoyed reserved seating with appetizers. This fun summertime festival is manned by dozens of community members who want to provide a fun event free of charge; the legwork is done by a slew of high school students who will earn 900 service hours this summer setting up and taking down chairs and awnings for the concerts. Thanks to the dedicated effort of these civic-minded adults and teens, I discovered my new favorite jazz artist Spencer Day.

One of the Bay Area's best kept summer secrets is Shady Shakespeare Theater Company. After Bob and I made plans to escape for the weekend, we thought the kids might enjoy a free (yes, free!) production of the Merchant of Venice just up the road from our house, at Sanborn Park. Not only is this worth the drive to visit a beautiful park in the Santa Cruz Mountain foothills, but the quality of this production ranks even higher than my last visit to a famous Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, Utah. The adminstrative staff all works for free, the actors are students of the Bard Academy in the Bay Area, and the organization is supported by major businesses, arts councils, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and the National Foundation for the Arts. This collaboration of talent is produced by a small group of paid workers and organizers, with a larger volunteer group who are passionate about the Arts. Because of their effort to share their passion, my family immensely enjoyed a cultural feast with elaborate costumes in the shade of the Santa Cruz mountains.

Between our weekend activities and our little weekly Wednesday family field trips, I've come across more volunteer labor than I could have imagined--just by focusing on the idea throughout the summer. We've ventured to the Tech Museum in San Jose, where all the hosts and hostesses are volunteers; they taught us how to grow green jellyfish cells and how a robot works to detonate explosives. At the Rosicrucian Museum, also in San Jose, we were guided through a replica Egyptian tomb by a student volunteer who translated the intricate heiroglyphics to tell a story of the Egyptians beliefs in the afterlife. In Santa Cruz, we viewed hundreds of antique Woodies, antique cars all brought together for the weekend by a group of passionate volunteers.

Who cares that we didn't make it to Europe or the Orient this summer, we'll get there eventually. We have benefited from the dedication of volunteers who are interested in everything from sports, to music and the arts, technology, history, and automobiles. Without their willingness to get involved and even work for free, these organizations and events would not survive. This has been my favorite "staycation" summer, because I've watched for these little community treasures and I've had so many opportunities to enjoy them!

Good Works Inspiration for You! Spencer Day - Movie of Your Life

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Time for the Arts

The wedding and our subsequent move into the home with Bob and his children took every bit of my energy last month. I saw several "good works" stories to write about, but could not seem to concentrate in these new surroundings. Ninety percent of our belongings are still in boxes in the garage, as we moved into a house that was already bursting at the seams with fifty years of family memories and love. As I try to sift through closets and drawers to make room, I realize how fast our lives go by and my priorities continue to shift. Though my first instinct normally would be to redecorate and nest, this time I want to gain understanding about Bob's parents who lived here all these years. Of course, I do need lots of breaks between unpacking and taking care of the family who has adopted me as their step-mom. If I didn't have a passion for fitness, I suppose it would be really tough to find myself again.

In a quest to find biking and running trails in this new community, I headed for the hills. Luckily the move brought me closer to my mother’s home, and to the heart of a beautiful lush neighborhood in the Saratoga foothills. Summertime is a little cooler at higher ground so I’ve made a habit of circling the tree-lined loop at Montalvo Arts Center at least once a week on my bike or when I’m doing a long run. I always thought of Montalvo as a jazz concert venue for artist's like Diana Krall, or a wedding venue for the wealthy. I've been there many times to enjoy the stunning Italian marble architecture, even to listen to a concert or two. The only reason for my visits this summer is to get back in shape! Montalvo Road is a steep grade to increase anyone's heart rate, and there is a little path next to the road so I can really push it with hill repeats--the most I've ever done is three in a row, enough to hopefully trim a pound. What I like about Montalvo's new image is the friendly "welcome" sign and air of accessibility. There are cars pulling in with families, coming up for a hike on the trails or checking kids into summer camps. The activities offered are affordable and high quality, the most appealing fare to me this summer is the "Starry, Starry Night" family stargazing slumber party on August 13--maybe we'll sign up for that.

Every ride or run up Montalvo Road I see artists working around the Don and Sally Lucas Artists Resident facility, so the other day I spoke to a gal in her mid-twenties as she climbed down from a tree. I could not imagine why an artist was climbing a ladder leaned against a giant Redwood, so I asked if she was a volunteer? "I'm a former artist fellow of the Lucas program, just installing the project proposal from my work here." She was embedding 1-inch round mirror tiles into the regularly-spaced knots on a very old tree, the light catching to create a sense of shimmer. She invited me to the Montalvo gala event next weekend, a free-to-the-public lawn party on July 23rd. Her work, and that of other Montalvo artists, will be on display outdoors in front of the center and indoors at the Carriage House. I asked the artist to send me some photos and video of her work to share, so stay tuned. Now she's moving on to find the next project--the artists continual search for stability. (After recently completing the book, "Girl in Hyacinth Blue," surmising Vermeer's struggle to provide for a family of thirteen, my passion for the Arts is renewed.)

Montalvo has become a nonprofit art mecca of the South Bay thanks to the generosity of Don and Sally Lucas, longtime Saratoga residents, philanthropists, and patrons of the arts, and others who have donated their time and money to keep this art center thriving. When James D. Phelan, San Francisco mayor and U.S. Senator, died in 1912 he generously gave 137 acres at Montalvo to Santa Clara County to be maintained as a public park. Regardless of the recent funding crises throughout towns, cities, and counties in this state, Montalvo continues to grow due to the well-managed and dedicated nonprofit staff and a steady volunteer workforce. What a gift Mr. Phelan gave to this community; the new Executive Director, Angela McConnell is determined to share it. She has a vision for Montalvo to make the Arts more accessible to all, and with her past success in fundraising and nonprofit management, my new favorite running and riding spot is bound to provide hours of workouts to escape among the Arts.

Do you have a passion for the Arts?

Try these cool good works ideas:

  • Offer to become a docent at a local art center or museum. This requires training and commitment, but perks usually include new friendships with like-minded people and possibly tickets to events.
  • Become an entry-level donor! You don't have to be a gazillionaire to be a philanthropist. Arts organizations are in dire need of our support in this economy, as overall donations have dropped. Small amounts by many donors work. My mom gives at basic levels to her favorite 5 or 6 institutions, and her entire family benefits. For instance, Bob and I attended a free outdoor jazz concert last night with yummy appetizers, thanks to Mom's gift to Los Gatos Arts and Music organization.
  • Become a dedicated patron, promote the Arts to your friends, skip the movies and attend a concert instead! For the same price of a substandard flick, you can see a chamber concert at Montalvo's Carriage House, or at Stanford Lively Arts venues. Remember Vermeer, Van Gogh, and other starving artists from history: It is the patrons who keep the artists in business.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Painting the Town Purple

My stepson Logan is a typical twelve-year-old boy with a good heart and sometimes with a tendency to get bored during the summer. Scout camp and hockey camp occupied his interests at the start of the break, but last week was more laid back with just one activity on his schedule. A dedicated sixth grade homeroom teacher has stayed in contact with her class via email to let them know about volunteer opportunities with the charity of their choice: the American Cancer Society. Early in the school year, each homeroom class at Redwood Middle School voted on a cause to support, with inspiration garnered from a school wide list of area charities. Logan's class narrowed their collective interests to three causes: Lucille Packard Children's Hospital, the local Humane Society chapter, and American Cancer Society. When the class took a vote, the Cancer Society won and Ms. Cornejo contacted their offices to find out what her class could do to help.

First, the students held a bake sale and made nearly $100 for the organization. Next, a cancer survivor from the community, Ms. Tomlin, visited the class with her real-life testimonial to promote understanding of the disease and to increase the students' desire to raise money and donate their good works
. According to Logan, this deeply affected him and his classmates and they became determined to do more, even if it took some time during the summer. Many children, like Logan, have a relative who has had cancer, so this is a cause close to their hearts.

When Ms. Cornejo sent out her group email a couple of weeks ago to come help "Paint the Town Purple," for Relay for Life, her students were engaged. Thirteen of them showed up with some parent chaperons to help tie ribbons on the trees along Big Basin Way for the upcoming Saratoga Relay for Life fundraising event at nearby Saint Andrews Episcopal Church July 24-25. The boys even did some "cold calling," walking into businesses to request a poster or brochure display and offering chocolates to express appreciation. Logan said it was a little scary going with his friends to approach business managers and owners, but a few of them were amenable and he felt a sense of accomplishment.

After dozens of purple ribbons were neatly tied, with Relay for Life posters and brochures distributed, the student teams with parents and dogs in tow headed to Yolatea for a frozen yogurt treat and some time to catch up and share vacation stories. Judging by these boys' smiles, the two-hour activity not only gave them an excuse to get together with friends over the summer; it gave them a sense of purpose and the knowledge that they too can make a difference!

Consider helping with publicity, attending the event, or sponsoring a walker.
  • Saratoga RFL is July 24-25 at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Saratoga, CA.
  • Palo Alto RFL is August 14-15 at Palo Alto High School, Palo Alto, CA.
  • Check the website for details:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Leaving the Baylands

When I was a lit
tle girl, in third grade and before California's Proposition 13 tax initiative all but eradicated school field trips, Mrs. Bears (yes, her real name) sent home permission slips with reminders to bring a sack lunch and to wear our galoshes to "The Marsh." We would be bird watching and learning about plant life by the Bay, about five miles east of our little school in the foothills. The day arrived and indeed it turned out to be rainy; all I can remember is trying to stay dry, and there is a faint mind's-eye picture of birds I had not seen before. I have been fascinated with the many varieties ever since, and attempted to learn some of their names by perusing my miniature Audubon guide. I have a terrible memory for obscure facts and cannot seem to remember half of the names, but I do recall "snowy egret." That was the bird one woman was describing to her male companion the other day as I took my regular jogging path through the same marsh which is now referred to as part of The Baylands. The City of Palo Alto website verifies my childhood memory that this was in fact referred to as "The Marsh" in the early sixties.
The Harriet Mundy Marsh, dedicated on October 23, 1982, extends from Lucy Evans Nature Interpretive Center to Sand Point. Harriet Mundy "discovered" the Baylands when she was advised to walk after a fall in 1959. She became a close friend of Lucy Evans and joined her in the resolve to help preserve the Palo Alto marshland. A $30 million private proposal to develop the Palo Alto Baylands for commercial and industrial use spurred Mundy to action. In 1960 she helped to circulate a petition which resulted in the City Council stopping development until a Baylands Master Plan was prepared. The naming of the marsh recognizes her continued perseverance and devotion to the marshlands.
When my girls and I moved to Palo Alto from Salt Lake City, I was coming home to the place where my father first started his career, the area where I was born. A time and a place to heal from life's injustices and tragedies. My brother, who lives in those same hills where we went to elementary school, tried to comfort me about my trunkiness for good Wasatch running trails. "Don't worry, Chris," he said, "you'll enjoy running on miles of open trails just across the freeway at the Baylands. Just cross under the freeway and you're there. You can run for twelve miles or more, with no cars to worry about." On a sunny summer morning, I set out on the prescribed running path and got a little depressed that all I could see was shallow, mucky water and brown hills in the distance. I knew I wanted to be here on the Peninsula, but missed those towering Utah mountains after all.

Over the next four years, the Baylands became a part of me. Memories of the third grade field trip gave way to new experiences running and biking the trail. More faint childhood recollections of my dad with his open cockpit airplane at the tiny Palo Alto municipal airport had their healing effect as I jogged the dirt path with small airplanes taking off, circling, and landing overhead. I learned to watch for snowy egrets and other unexpected wildlife just below the private planes. Though the Wasatch Mountain range had been a playground for my family, I have come to realize that flat places can also provide a connection with nature, and a sense of peace. For me, anytime there is water flowing--from the Bay, a river or stream--I am renewed. Thankfully, environmentalists and community activists in the 1960s saw the value in the Baylands and dedicated their passion to preserving this place as a haven for birds and for souls like mine.

As I prepare this week to move to a new community thirteen miles away, I jog the Baylands trail with more reverence and appreciation. "This trail didn't exist until passionate volunteers in the sixties worked to make it so," I whisper to myself with a smile. Today, activists
from every corner of the community help to maintain the Baylands: formally organized nonprofits such as Acterra, Save the Bay, and Environmental Volunteers, and weekend good works volunteers gathered by school and church groups. Lynn Hori, a biology teacher at Palo Alto High School, has worked for years with her classes to gain an understanding of this preserve by requiring community service as part of her class curriculum. Her passion and energy dedicated to the Baylands have touched the lives of high school students for decades.

Last weekend, a statewide outdoor volunteer effort organized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brought families from the local congregations together to clean up the Baylands. Fathers, mothers, small children, and teenagers all worked together to make a difference for this special spot on the Bay and for all of us who find solace there. While I still miss the mountains where my family lived for eighteen years, I've been reminded often
at the Baylands that the world is still whole. When I see a snowy egret walking along the jogging path or a family of geese hissing from the wildflowers to protect their newly-hatched goslings, I am thankful that we all peacefully coexist in this haven on a water's edge of Silicon Valley.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Lilttlest Helper

We were offered some free Giants tickets the other night--front row seats! The only problem for me was that we had wedding invitations to send out a.s.a.p. and I knew even seats above the dugout would not be worth the stress of ignoring a job to be done at home. Bob took his boys and my daughter Grace, while the youngest member of our soon-to-be-blended family, Taryn, stayed with me to give a hand. I often procrastinate when I'm in over my head, so found all kinds of other things to do: a more elaborate dinner, a jog, a shower. Taryn was happy to play with her American Girl doll and to help tear lettuce for the salad. As bedtime approached, she asked me why we hadn't done the invitations, and could she still help out? Having a little girl offer to help humbled and motivated me, and I decided to dive into the task for one hour.

As we stacked and sorted the invites, marking them with the return address and a wedding ring stamp, Taryn and I chatted about how to tackle tedious tasks. This girl is a worker, often offering to help at home. She proudly stated her hobby, "I just like to keep busy, it makes time go by faster." By the end of the hour, we had nearly completed the job and I sent my little helper off to bed. I was energized by her pleasant and giving attitude. Just that extra set of hands, small as they are, was enough to show me that I could pull this wedding together by asking for help from family and friends when I am overwhelmed. Bob and the kids returned a couple of hours later from the game and he carried Taryn, sleeping like a rag-doll, out to the car. I threw a hot-pink fleece blanket over her shoulders, and her eyes barely opened, with a satisfied and knowing look that she made a difference in our house tonight.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Payin' it Forward and Slowin' it Down

My week started out fast and got faster. Too much work, too many errands, trying to fit in a little exercise between being a mom and planning my wedding, moving with my daughters to a new home, and the arrival of my first grandchild--all within the next four months. That's enough stress points to count as a seriously life-altering experience. But as a co-worker reminded me, "at least it's all good stress, right?" I find myself needing to go a little slower these days, or the world feels like it's spinning out of control around me.

Bob and I took some of our kids to a 5K race yesterday morning, the Big Bunny Fun Run. I had to take running slower, too, but for some reason I didn't care. The competetive, driving, "gotta get ahead" part of me is wilting and I don't really mind. Something about turning forty-seven and facing big changes in life has caused me to take life less seriously and I find myself squinting to see those little bright spots each day that remind me it's all worth the effort, and these transition phases don't go on forever. At some point things do settle down. On my way home yesterday, cars were speeding along 280 and several of them weaved around me almost in tandem. This happened twice, with different sets of drivers acting as if they were both competing for the same lane on an open stretch of a four-lane freeway. The second time this happened in front of me, I shook my head and backed away. "Too much hurrying for the Easter Bunny," I thought.

I arrived at home and intentionally ignored the things-to-do list, simply concentrating on the most pressing issues of the day. "I like this better," I thought, "no list to order me around, I can do what I want today." The afternoon passed slowly as I picked away at my Saturday chores, then we joined Bob's family for a strategy session planning the upcoming move, and dinner in downtown San Jose. Bob and I were both depleted after a busy week and an even busier Saturday. He usually accomplishes about twice as much as I do every day, so I wasn't surprised to hear that he had made it the post office after our morning race. Even after I told him he wouldn't make it. He wrapped up presents for his two grown sons, who are serving missions for our church, and took them to mail. He made it just as the post office was closing but In his haste, he had left his wallet in the car. He told his little girl, Taryn, to wait for him with the clerk while he ran out to get the wallet. When he returned, he discovered the customer ahead of him had chatted with Taryn and perceived that he was doing something special for his boys. She paid the bill and refused reimbursement. "It's Easter, and a time for celebration," she told him, "it's my pleasure." Little did this woman know how deserving this man is, and I am very grateful that she chose him to share her good deed to benefit a hard working single dad who never seems to complain.

In this pushy world of going faster and fitting more into our day, trying to all squeeze into the same lane on the freeway until our backs ache with the burdens we carry, it's comforting to know there are still some who take the time to notice another person's need. That was the premise of the story "Pay it Forward," by Catherine Ryan Hide, in which a twelve-year-old boy was inspired to do good works for others. I know Bob and Taryn were inspired by the woman at the post office who wished them a Happy Easter. Whether she continues to do service like this in her daily errands, she affected two lives yesterday. And when they later told the rest of us the story, another five were touched. We are reminded that we don't need to go quite so fast; the list will always be there, but the opportunity to do something good and needed can only be recognized in that split second opportunity. It cannot be recognized in a hurry.

More about Pay it Forward Foundation:
Share your Stories of Good Works:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Moms Who Give Back: Project Linus

Most of my friends have their plates a little too full these days. With all of the conveniences that we have to multi-task, free time goes by the wayside in favor of fitting more into our days. A generous family in Palo Alto started a foundation years ago to provide below-market rent and a housing purchase program to families just starting out; in exchange the requirement is that the recipients of the deal will give back to the community in their spare time, however they can.
From the website: "The California Family Foundation helps low-income families work towards home ownership. The Below Market Rate Housing Program rents homes in eastern Menlo Park and East Palo Alto to families who have good credit, a growing income, are willing to perform community service every month and who are ready to be homeowners in 3 to 5 years."
Cindy and Jenny live in some of the foundation's rental houses as their husband's begin their careers. These gals are inspirational to me; I've asked them to share their story to empower other young people. Teenagers, families, and groups can all do community service for Project Linus.

"Our Mission is to provide love, a sense of security, warmth and comfort to children who are seriously ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need through the gifts of new, handmade, washable blankets lovingly created by volunteer blanket makers or 'blanketeers'.

"On Christmas Eve 1995, an article titled Joy to the World appeared in Parade Magazine. It was written by Pulitzer Prize winning photo-journalist, Eddie Adams. Part of the article featured a petite, downy haired child. She had been going through intensive chemotherapy and stated that her security blanket helped her get through the treatments.

"After reading the article, Karen Loucks decided to provide homemade security blankets to Denver's Rocky Mountain Children's Cancer Center, and Project Linus was born.

Project Linus has delivered over 3,000,000 security blankets to children around the world. With nearly 400 chapters in the United States, our organization continues to supply blankets to children in need. Although Project Linus originally donated blankets to pediatric cancer patients, recipients now include any child who is seriously ill or traumatized in some way -- in other words "children in need of a big hug."

Thanks to Project Linus and the California Family Foundation for inspiring this service opportunity to make a difference in children's lives. I'm not sure how many blankets Cindy and Jenny have made, but they are setting a great example for their own families and for all of us who know them. According to Jenny, Stanford pediatric fellow's wife and mother of four beautiful little girls, with another baby on the way:

"I’ve enjoyed working with Project Linus because I’m a busy mom without a lot of time. I can make blankets in the free time I have in the evenings and still feel like I’m contributing to the community. I especially love the idea of serving a child in need. The project welcomes several types of blankets so you don’t have to be an expert seamstress to participate. Its relatively fast, easy and inexpensive and my older children can watch, help and learn to develop a servant’s heart."

Find out how youth and families can do good works by making blankets and delivering them to local fabric stores for distribution, visit Project Linus:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The 10-Minute Volunteer

Working in a high school environment, I have come to appreciate the value of small fragments of time: five-minute passing periods, ten minutes for brunch, and thirty-five minutes for lunch. Usually the adults skip those latter two increments. There is one round institutional clock in every room, sometimes two, each being a few seconds or a minute apart. I have learned exactly how much time it takes to trek from one end of campus to the other: five minutes from the north portables on the Embarcadero side, to the science classrooms in the 1700 building. We move with the sound of the bell, a pattern that has caused me to jump even when I hear a telephone ring: "Time to go," my brain signals.

Today, the clocks and bells sounded louder than ever in my mind, deadlines and expectations mounted with the hours and I soon felt overwhelmed. That's when I usually go into "tidal wave" mode, and just try to keep my head above water: invite 250 students to Saturday school, meet the career day guest speakers and publicize the next event, field parent calls about their students' attendance, find the microphones for today's career day. My jobs at Paly are completely disconnected but somehow I weave threads from one student to the next: one thousand eight-hundred or so of them, and one of me. At 3:50 p.m. this afternoon my nearly-sixteen-year-old daughter Grace called to remind me that I promised to take her to sign up for Drivers Ed. "No way," I thought." I stayed last night until 6:00 p.m. and tonight doesn't look any better." Then I heard something louder than clocks, bells, or telephones in my head; it was the "Cat's Cradle" song by Harry Chapin, reminding me about the fleeting years with my kids.

A substitute whom I had already complained about came in rather abruptly, looking for her paperwork. There were six other people standing outside the door waiting to be helped and I didn't care about anything anymore; I just wanted to go home and pick up Grace to sign up for driving lessons. I'm not sure what was going through the substitute teacher's mind, but she must have seen I was outnumbered. She said, "You know, I have ten extra minutes until my ride arrives so I'm going to give you a hand. What can I do?" I was shocked. I knew she wasn't getting paid to be there, or to do anything more than cover her classes for the day. Exhausted from working alone when there should have been two of us in the office, I pointed to a pile of envelopes and asked her to file them. She fanned out the envelopes and tucked them away, then offered to do another job with her remaining four minutes. "I can see you need some help," she said, as I attempted to take phone calls. She would have stayed longer, but I knew the price of missed driving lessons would be worse than Harry Chapin's warning so I told her the office would close for the day regardless of loose ends hanging. Irene didn't have another assignment lined up for the next day, but by volunteering out of kindness to help for just ten minutes she proved her worth. I arranged to hire her for tomorrow!

Volunteering often leads to paid work, see The Ladders Article:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Day of Darkness

I would like to thank the students and staff at Palo Alto High School for their overall amenable demeanor today. I don't remember ever having to spend a day in school with no electricity, but unfortunately due to a nearby catastrophic plane crash, our city was without power all day. As a coworker and I prepared to leave toward the late afternoon, we commented to each other about the quiet, peaceful nature of the campus today. But walking down the dark hallway, I remembered the reason why we experienced this day of darkness and all of the families whose lives have been torn apart since 8:00 a.m. this morning.

I found it both poignant and ironic that our Environmental Initiative club had just promoted their event, "Eco Awareness Week"
January 27-29. I helped spread the word for Thursday, January 28th, Day of Darkness - "a day in which teachers [were] encouraged to take a stance against energy consumption by turning off the lights in their classroom." So, today, as a sad reminder that we can leave a smaller carbon footprint even while in school, we were forced to have another day of darkness--as was the entire town of Palo Alto due to the fallen power lines at the crash site.

We commemorated the environmentally friendly car maker Tesla last year during our Career Month, and this year during Eco Awareness Week. Now, perhaps we can switch the Day of Darkness to February 17, in honor of the tragic deaths of three Tesla engineers. Today was not a planned day to go without electricity, but we are reminded it can be done. Read Michael Abrams' account of the Environmental Initiative event, and see what you can do to make a difference for the environment.
Our event went very well. When you have such events, the pressure really gets ramped up and that is when you can tell who is a leader. I was pleased to see people who hadn't previously been as active in the club really become a part of the team and help out. One thing we will do next year is have a different planning strategy...Also, we all agreed that we need a better advertising strategy for next year's earth week and all future events - it seemed like a lot of people would have participated if they had known more about what to bring for the tie dye day and to bring their bike to school on the bike race day. One event that I was very proud of, though, was bringing the Tesla to school. Everyone, including teachers and students I didn't even know, were so interested in it.

Cool Community Service Inspiration: The Environment
  • Create a celebration! Check out University of California, Berkeley's Earthweek Event for ideas:
  • Join an environmental group or club, such as the national nonprofit Alliance for Community Trees:, or contribute time or resources to local tree planting organizations such as in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Incorporate the Environment into learning, check out One Planet Fundraising:

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Volunteer Florist

As I walked into my little office in the high school Guidance Center the other day, I noticed the most thoughtfully arranged flower display atop our secretary's desk. Even though we were all bundled up on a foggy February morning, the bright blooms brought an air of freshness to our century old building. I was a little bit jealous of Jenny, seated with the flowers at constant eye level, but she informed me they were for the entire department to enjoy. They were not from her secret admirer, but from a dedicated parent volunteer who decided to share her talents and spread some cheer .

After snapping a photo of Jenny adorned by the flower arrangement, I proceeded with my day happy that I at least had a donated plant in my office to remind me of winter's end. Lunchtime approached, and I knew it would be a quick snack in the microwave. As I walked toward the vintage kitchen at the end of the corridor to nuke my leftovers, I spotted a glowing woman carrying a large floral arrangement, similar to the one on Jenny's desk. I stopped to find out if she was indeed the maker of these elaborate decorations, and to discern the nature of her motivation. There's no secret, just passion that drives Mrs. Anderson to design flowers for the staff at our high school. She simply loves flowers and has learned all about the varieties available in each season. She makes a stop at Trader Joe's for blooms and cuts them to suit her fancy, placing them in decorative containers as her service to the school community.

Theresa Anderson, and talented people like her, are usually happy to share their artistic skills by teaching others. She took floral design classes at nearby Filoli Gardens, an estate in the woods that has become a nonprofit to promote horticultural endeavors and interests. (Check out their website to see all the ways you can make a difference: Theresa, in turn, would love to share her new found knowledge of the trade with high school students or any volunteers that would like to help keep our campus fresh. I've never heard someone say, "Gee, I wish I hadn't received that darned bouquet," so if you're looking for a simple way to make a difference, try it with flowers!

Cool Community Service Ideas: Horticulture

  • Plant seeds or have a fundraiser for money to buy flowers, arrange in vases and take to your school or church. My congregation is adorned weekly with arrangements by volunteer florists.
  • Make corsages for Mother's Day, or boutonnieres for Father's Day, donate to a nearby care center or Veteran's Administration hospital.
  • Plant wildflowers: try Hobbs & Hopkins wildflower fundraising program, see "We supply our packaged wildflower seeds, planting instructions and all other necessary support. Your group then creates and applies their own custom labels. Friends and family are happy to buy these special and personalized wildflowers for their home and as gifts for others. It is a welcomed and Earth friendly alternative to traditional fundraising methods."
  • Donate a tree at IKEA to benefit, you can select any amount at the checkout stand.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Reaching Out

Sometimes it takes picking up the phone and dialing the number of someone you've never met, or sending a seemingly random email in hopes of a response; another time you send a long letter describing your need. But somewhere along the way, help does come--eventually. My friend Clemencia sent me a text message the other day, wondering if I had any community service ideas for her young adult son who is going through a difficult time. He eventually decided to sign up as a volunteer at the local Veteran's Administration hospital. Their volunteer recruitment process is a test of patience, so I encouraged Clem to tell KC to hold on and not give up. I hope the VA realizes quickly that he is not just a number on a spreadsheet of volunteers, but an individual with unique talents to offer. Please don't make him wait too long for a phone call...

The challenge in signing up with large organizations who employ volunteer coordinators is that most agencies are backlogged and overwhelmed. Call it a result of the economic downturn, or a sign of big bureaucracy; there are not enough hands to manage the work. In the meantime, what is a young person to do when he wants and needs to get out of the house and involved in the community? A proven technique to find good works connections is the "informational interview."

The popular career search book, "What Color is Your Parachute," by Richard Nelson Boles, promotes the idea of making connections in the world to find out more about a particular career path. I also encourage students to use this tool when looking for volunteer opportunities; at the very least they become better informed, at best they might land the perfect volunteer opportunity. Young volunteers like KC can get lost in the shuffle of the VA's online site, the subsequent forms and training requirements. If he has the time to wait, it will pay off. In the meantime, he could--with a little help--ask a few care providers to talk to him about their jobs and end the conversation with a connection request: "Do you have any volunteer opportunities here, or do you know anyone in the health care field who does?"

As mentioned in Boles' book, It's a good idea to carry a list of questions to ask when interviewing. Here are some that I developed with my students in the Life and Career Planning course:
  • What is the most gratifying part of your work? The most challenging?
  • What is the most important advice you would give to someone who is just starting out?
  • If you could go back to high school or college, would you choose a different path to this career? What would you do differently, or the same?
  • What are the best lessons you have learned in developing your career?
  • Do you have a mentor, or someone who has inspired you to succeed in your life and work?
If you pursue the path with a purpose, the answers to these questions will inspire new ideas and keep the creative thought process open. Remember to end the interview with the question, "Do you have any opportunities here, or can you introduce me to someone who might?" I have found in my own career search that most people are quite happy to be of assistance in this way. I was given the chance to meet with a De Anza College professor the other day, and within the hourlong discussion he introduced me to the perfect connection for my quest to develop a civic engagement and community service program for youth. It takes a little work to research and find the right contact, but I'm sure if KC can make a personal connection with someone at the VA or another healthcare agency, he will become more than a number on a database of applicants. He can stand out based on the unique talents he has to offer as a volunteer, and later if he desires, as a valued employee.

Interested in healthcare volunteer opportunities? Try these.

  • Visit the elderly. Visit a local resident care facility to see which of their patients need visitors. Plan a schedule, and bring specific activities each time. Some patients can only listen to a story, but others might be interested in puzzles or card games. One volunteer at our high school even developed a poker club with seniors in a care center last summer--too cool!
  • Host a blood drive. Our school's Key Club (affiliated with Rotary Club) recently sponsored a drive for Stanford Blood Center. See this article about Yerba Buena High School's drive,
  • Promote awareness of organ donation. Make posters, distribute organ donation cards.
  • Develop a hand washing campaign for your school or workplace to combat the spread of disease. Make a logo for your promotion on posters, flyers, local media, social networks. Use this kit from the Minnesota Department of Public Health,

Monday, January 18, 2010

Community Service Today, and Every Day

As Bob and I started out on our Saturday afternoon excursion we stopped to check on a student volunteer who was helping with a community service clean-up project on his own. He had begun a few days before and just needed to finish. I was concerned to see him taking a break when I arrived, but as he toured me through the facility I understood that he had been on task. Leaving him with a verbal list of to-do's in order to put a lid on his efforts, I went about my day wondering what really motivates teenagers and young adults to serve.

Some students with whom I have worked are desperate to do anything that can be counted as community service because they have court-mandated hours after finding mischief and getting into trouble with the law. Others have the same desperation, but only due to the pressure from their parents to rack maximum hours for their transcripts in hopes of Harvard admission or a hefty scholarship. I find the most enjoyment from observing the efforts of the other two groups: 1.) students who find something they are interested in, and they pursue it through service, and 2.) students who simply find joy in giving of themselves, and in doing good.

We adults know the difference between doing something because we are required to by an outside authority and because we want to; speeding tickets and taxes come to mind. The creative juices do not flow when we are working to check off the boxes. Last fall I spoke with Megan Fogarty,
manager of the John Gardner Public Service Fellowship at Stanford University, about the motivation to serve. She mentioned that Stanford had considered making service and volunteering a graduation requirement, but during an informal study the board decided the requirement produced an undesirable effect, the opposite of altruism: obligation.

In working with those who request my assistance in designing purposeful projects to give back to the community, I have begun to distinguish the subtle characteristics between required service and desired service. When the motivation comes from within, from one's unique
talents and interests, the experience is gratifying and growth-promoting. When it comes from an outside source, such as a requirement, the result is often accompanied by a sense of drudgery and dread, (ex: "let's get this over with.") So, in honor of Martin Luther King and the National Day of Service, the third Monday in January, I hope that we can all look inside ourselves for the individual gifts that we have to offer and create something from those commodities, something that was not there before: genuine good works.

Read Susan Ellis' article, "Why Volunteer," for more benefits and motivations of service. Her top 5 reasons:
  • to feel needed
  • to share a skill
  • to get to know a community
  • to demonstrate commitment to a cause/belief
  • to gain leadership skills

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Response Time for Haiti

I first learned about Foyer de Sion Orphanage in Port Au Prince, Haiti, three years ago when the Morgan family ( presented an inspiring video called "Gate of Hope", about reaching out. We had a room full of women ages twenty-five to seventy-five, and we knew very little about Haiti. We could not have read a hundred books to compare with the beautiful depictions of children without homes in a forgotten land. Their video ( to promote awareness for the orphanage was compelling. Recently when we were putting together plans for our fall Humanitarian project another friend, Jennifer, suggested she wanted to make t-shirt dresses for children. I knew just who could use them.

Cindy started making calls to the stateside connections for the orphanage, and later a shirt donor came forward to provide all eighty of the brightly colored tees. All we needed was fabric to sew onto the bottoms to complete the dresses, which was found by requesting the leftover supplies from neighbors and friends, and low-cost yardage from Wal-Mart. Luckily, Jennifer was persistent enough to carry this project beyond the one-day service event, with several ladies working to help finish the last twenty dresses. She is now gathering them for delivery via yet another friend, Krys, to the Idaho family who works with the orphanage and who will transport them. So goes a service project of many hands over several months.

When I spoke to Jennifer to see if I could have a photo of the finished product, she mentioned that she was glad she had something to focus on when her own disabled daughter had surgery in November. Besides involving so many different people to complete, another beautiful side to this story is Jennifer's ability to give of herself in following through, regardless of her own situation. I believe all of us who have had anything to do with dresses for Haiti have been deeply touched lately, wondering if the children would ever survive and receive our gifts. Thankfully, all is well at Foyer de Sion; other orphanages and schools were destroyed in the earthquake.

There are so many of us who have been touched by our involvement with this project: I was inspired years ago by Randall and Deanna Morgan's moving video of the children, Jen was inspired by the book "101 Things You Should Do Before Your Kids Leave Home," and Cindy became the facilitator. The anonymous donor was generous enough to order dozens of brand new t-shirts, still others brought in fabric, and dedicated seamstresses sewed on the flouncy skirts. More will be involved in the delivery, and I wonder if it might have been simpler to mail something from Venezuela. But then, we would not have felt so deeply connected when catastrophe struck last week. And that is the value of good works, not the cost of time or materials to produce the end result, but the way it stitches all of us together.

Get Involved: Relief for Haiti

  1. See the video, donate to Foyer de Sion., click on "View Gate of Hope Video."
  2. My Latest Tweet, thanks in part to Paly's American Disaster Relief club: TEXT TO HELP HAITI NOW. $10 to Red Cross: "Haiti" to 90999. $10 to Clinton Foundation: "Haiti" to 20222. $5 to Wyclef Jean: "Yele" to 501501
  3. Read this touching blog: University of Portland graduate Molly Hightower has left a legacy of service in Haiti. It will inspire you to take action in your own unique way:
  4. Gather and donate jeans at any Aeropostale store to help homeless teens in Haiti: Thank you to Paly student Maria for taking on this very project for the Living Skills class requirement this weekend--even on your birthday!
  5. Host a bake sale, like several schools in our district are doing this weekend. Proceeds are needed to help Partners in Health provide medical relief:
  6. Check out this inspiring blog from Bellarmine College Prep student Bobby Moon: Read about his experience:

T-shirt Dresses for Haiti (and other causes)

  • Step-by-step:
  • Jazz it up: