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:

Friday, January 8, 2010

Project of the Year

When I look back at 2009 and all the fun service I was a part of, Megan and Carolyn's dream stands out. We were designing a humanitarian service day for the women of our church, and Carolyn had seen an idea to make wall hangings for orphanages. As the planning ensued, Megan meekly confessed that this project spoke to her soul. We all knew she had been a star soccer player in college, and she was know devoting herself to starting and raising a family as well as managing apartments; we had no concept of her enthusiasm and drive to share her artistic talents. The finished product here looks harmless enough, but Megan, her husband John, and maybe even her little boy Andrew can all vouch for the fact that this endeavor became a part of the family landscape for at least half of 2009.

Megan's plan was to draw designs on muslin, quilt and border them, then at Carolyn's suggestion, send them to our church's humanitarian relief headquarters for distribution overseas. Somehow we thought that with 120 women, fifteen wall hangings was manageable. As these heartfelt projects sometimes go, the intentions were there at the one-day event, but the group leader gets stuck with all the loose ends. With beautiful drawings to be fabric-painted, and cut-outs to be appliqued, Megan took the fourteen-of-fifteen wall hangings home where they adorned her small kitchen. We recruited ladies to stop by on occasion, and also enlisted the Palo Alto High School YCS/Interact community service club for a one-day painting marathon session. Still, with my work schedule all I could do was to cheer Megan on.

Thankfully, the project has now been delivered and we can share this good works experience with others. Wall hangings are wonderful decorations for shelters in the States and for orphanages overseas. They can be completed by families, teens, and adults; just be careful to keep it simple (ex: one finished wall hanging is easier to deal with than a dozen partially finished--whew!) Here is a reflection from the artist and mother of two.

Megan & Carolyn's Dream

To be honest this project proved to be a bit more time consuming than I had originally anticipated, but it was a very worthwhile experience. The finished products were better than I could have imagined, the skills I developed will serve me in the future, and I was able to serve along side some wonderful women, who are now dear friends. The project was also a lot of fun! It was fun to draw, paint, quilt and sew. I had actually never sewed anything prior to this experience and since the wall hanging project I have even completed a few blankets, which is something I don't think I would have attempted without the sewing experience I gained from the wall hangings. I have also loved to doodle and draw and the project allowed me put some of my little doodles into an art piece.
I think the best thing I gained from this experience was the love I felt for the children that would benefit from these art pieces. I've never met any of them, nor do I ever think I will meet them, but I think these wall hangings will bring a smile to their faces and a bit of cheer to their surroundings. And that makes me happy.

Instructions on how to make a wall hanging:

Materials needed include: white cloth (treated with gesso), quilt batting, fabric to serve as backing and binding, fabric paint, pencil, sewing machine and thread, embroidery floss & needles, scissors, a quilting frame if your project is large and creativity.

You can make your wall hanging to whatever size suits your purposes. Just remember, the larger the wall hanging the more time and materials you'll need.

1) Prepare the canvas: cut white cloth to desired sized and treat with gesso (this can be found at art supply stores or craft stores like Michael's). Typically the gesso needs to dry for 24 hours so be sure to consider that in your project time line. Once the canvas is dry sketch the design you wish to paint.
2) Paint the canvas: Using fabric paint, paint the canvas according to your design. (Tip: Fabric paint can be expensive, you can use acrylic paint mixed with a textile medium to create color fast fabric paint. You typically need to heat set the paint with an iron once it is dry. The textile medium can also be found at craft stores or fabric stores.)
3) Finish the canvas: Once the canvas is painted and dried you sandwich the quilt batting between the canvas and the fabric backing. Bind the three pieces together with a temporary binding stitch or with large safety pins. Be sure to cut the backing fabric a few inches longer than the canvas on all sides to allow enough fabric to do a fold over binding. Quilt around the shapes of your design using the embroidery floss. This keeps the batting from shifting. Finish the edges of the wall hanging by folding the backing over the top of the canvas and sew in place. You can also make loops from any extra backing fabric and attach to the top of the wall hanging.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Boys on Break

This week was a jolt as the girls and I headed back to school. Teenagers have a hard time adjusting to early wake-up, but I figured since we stayed home during the holiday they would be rested and ready to go. We bundled up and I headed to the Attendance Office, while they greeted their teachers with bleary eyes. That morning, I was disheartened to hear about a student I know well, who had found some mischief over the break and gotten into big trouble. However, later that morning I was reminded of the many ways our students do more good than harm.

One passionate student told me with fire in his eyes all about the family volunteering trip he took to Costa Rica with Global Citizens, and he wanted to endorse the organization. I asked him to write about it for our upcoming community service magazine. I thought about the difference between him and the troubled teen, wondering what motivates young people to make a positive impact instead of the opposite. The factor is boredom; when teens are bored, trouble often ensues--take it from a single mom who's been there. I remember all of the Winter Breaks with my son Brody, and a compelling need to keep him busy!

There were other teen volunteers over the break who contacted me to let me know of their progress; their self-confidence and sense of purpose was apparent. Jake and his club, American Disaster Relief, sold $600 worth of hot chocolate at Christmas Tree Lane ( to make their goal of $1000 to help rebuild New Orleans. Every little bit counts, and sometimes just the effort of organizing is enough to stay engaged in the community and doing good. Here is Jake's account:

It was at the corner of Fulton ave [Christmas Tree Lane] and
Seale ave for the three days (from 6 till 9 each night) before

We bought about $60 of hot chocolate (about 600 cups worth) and
cookies and opened up a booth. We had a hot chocolate making station
in my house, where about 3 people made about a gallon of hot chocolate
ever half hour. We put it in thermoses that people donated for the
time, and sold them for a dollar each to walkers and cars.

We actually opened up a drive through on the last day. We made $600
total, and plan on making a larger donation (maybe $1000) to common
ground relief down in New Orleans to rebuild the lower ninth ward.

We could have used more volunteers to open up another station. I think
we did very well though, compared to last years $200. We are
definitely doing it next year.

Way to go, guys! You could have sat around texting and playing Xbox, but chose to reach out instead.
On the other hand, Charles is a swimmer who wasn't sure he would have much time to do more than swim, eat, and sleep over the break, due to long workouts in the pool. Surprisingly, I was greeted via email on Sunday night, the last day of break, with news that he had worked with his mom to create eight linked pages to publish as part of our database of student volunteer activities. Where he found the time, I'll never know but I'm very grateful nonetheless. The work by Charles and his mom, Wen-Jun, will allow us to share unique opportunities for teens and their families to do good works in the community. Since many formal volunteer activities have an age requirement, our students get very crafty in pursuing their passions through community service. Now we can capture all of that and publish it. Good work, Charles, your passion for all things techie makes a difference!

Sometimes what it takes is the spark of personal interests to keep teenagers on track and out of trouble. My son Brody found his passion in football, but he also learned to serve by pursuing an Eagle Scout badge when he was sixteen years old. He designed and built several large wooden toy boxes, with hand-painted sport-motif designs, for a local children's shelter. Last I checked those toy boxes still stored sporting goods and other supplies for the short-term residents awaiting foster homes. Another boy in my neighborhood completed his Eagle project over the Winter Break this holiday season, designing and building hanging racks and shelves for the Wardrobe, a PTA-run facility in our district to provide snow clothing rentals and free clothing assistance to families in need. Spencer's project completely consumed his vacation, and his parents' time as well. He even missed a family wedding out of state to complete the task; that's dedication. He enlisted the help of his family, his water polo teammates, and his friends; anyone with time on their hands was recruited to cut wood, sort or hang clothing.

As I stopped by the Wardrobe today and revisited the sparkling end result of one teenage boy's effort to do good, I realized how many others like him took the time to reach out when a few others were bored and possibly getting into trouble. Luckily at Paly, I'm exposed to so many of these types of students that all I can do is smile when I think of their energy, creativity, and purpose. There is no limit to what boys can accomplish when motivated to share their talents!

Check out These Cool Volunteering Ideas

  • Hot Chocolate Sales and Other Fundraising Connections:
  • Techie Volunteers Needed:,
  • Family volunteer travel and international grassroots projects:,
  • The virtues of Scouting, Volunteer Outcomes Study: