Monday, November 11, 2013

Serve Today to Honor the Veterans in Your World

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

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

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

Thursday, November 7, 2013

VOTE TODAY! San Francisco Ford Community Green Grant Finalists

Four Bay Area environmental education organizations are vying for a teeny-tiny (but well-deserved) grant. Take a minute to vote today and again tomorrow for your favorite. Check them out to see the BIG contribution they can make with small budgets. Then, see how you can help by donating to and/or volunteering at these and other nonprofits to make a long-term difference in Sustainability.

Learn about the San Francisco Ford Community Green Grant Finalists and VOTE TODAY!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

From Make A Difference Day & Socktober to November Give Back

Did you find a way to give back on Make A Difference Day, Saturday, October 26th? I was able to do several forms of "family service" and it felt good to do the right thing with my time and resources.

If you missed your opportunity, here's another chance. The gifted little actor Soul Pancake promotes the needs of our homeless and transient neighbors with "Socktober."

"Neighbors," one of my students asked this morning. "Do we even HAVE homeless people in Palo Alto?" His question generated an enlightening discussion about the law that was recently passed to prevent homeless people from living in their cars in our town. From my experience student teaching in South Palo Alto this semester, I will say It's true: This side of the community is less divided than the north side. More middle income, less poverty and less extreme wealth. 

Thank you to Soul Pancake for this compelling message, giving us all another chance to Make A Difference with Socktober. Don't let November stop you, homeless and transients can use new socks anytime--yes, even in Palo Alto.

Local Resources in and around Palo Alto, CA will will accept socks (new, please) and more any day, every day. Giver's Tip: take $5 or $10 to your local dollar store, purchase 5 or 10 pairs of adult sized socks and make your special delivery!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Humongous Volunteer Fair & Big Palo Alto Volunteer Opportunity this Weekend

One of our Paly College & Career Center parent volunteers shared with me this interesting news about a car dealership promoting student volunteerism this Saturday. We were both impressed with the number of volunteer organizations convening, since we have sponsored many similar venues on campus. Want to enjoy a cost-free, productive weekend? Stop by the student volunteer fair at Lexus of Stevens Creek on Saturday morning, then help out with the Canary Ride in the Palo Alto area in the afternoon!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Students Make Connections for Good

For me these days, writing is a sporadic delicacy which can only be partaken as a release from juggling three jobs and student teaching three English classes. Along the way, I am privileged to read the personal narratives of this semester's community service scholars at Paly (more than 200!). When an administrator flippantly suggests our students are giving back "just to look good on their college apps," I point to the reflections we've gathered over four years to prove the contrary. Young people mainly give back to make positive connections with others, and to make a contribution to their interests in the world. 

When I meet with a student for whose project I need clarification, he or she will generally reflect fondly on a life-changing experience for the hours to be recognized on the high school transcript. Yes, many of our students want to get into that certain school and they want to put their best food forward. But no, our students are not pursuing random service for their resumes. They are creating powerful connections to their interests and passions, while spreading goodwill and "doing the right thing". And we all need more of that, regardless of where we have gone or will go to college. 

Still not convinced? Read George Saunders's convocation speech given at Syracuse University, June 2013. It will open your heart. 

Hungry for more? Peruse a few of last year's Palo Alto High School student reflections on service at Get Involved, Paly.

Need proof? Check out this amazing video of a student doing one simple act to change the world. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Kick for Charity Soccer Camp Fundraiser

Thanks to our students for collaborating to share this awesome soccer camp community service project. It was presented to me at the end of May and I got to see them in action, some fantastic volunteer coaches! I'm drowning it teacher credential projects right now, but you can see the video here and I'll add details as soon as I have time. Special appreciation goes to Paly junior Jack Brook, who put the story together from his vacation home in Canada. He finished just in time for me to share with the Living Skills classes at our second session summer school. The class requires 15 hours of community service, so I hope more of our students can see ways to connect their passions to the community.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Pay it Forward with a Little Compliment

It's been a difficult summer so far. Lots of changes, some work, lots of school for me to finish the teaching credential. It's all too much. The other day I really felt depressed and overwhelmed, searching for a place to make copies on my way to class. When I finally found the copy store, I was a little grumpy but the college-aged guy at the counter went out of his way by setting up the self-service copier for me to get started. As he walked back to his workstation he complimented my eyes. I hoped he was just trying to be nice! Leaving the copy shop, I could see he was giving the same kindness and attention to the next customer--an older gentleman--so I knew he was sincere. The little compliment brought me out of my funk; I was able to make my way to class with a completely new outlook and ability to handle my challenges. It was a reminder to stop worrying about myself and my situation, and think more of others--pay that compliment forward. 

Here we are only two days later and it's tough again. "That's just the way life is", I tell myself. "Let's go enjoy a crepe at the farmers market." As I walked down Second Street in Los Altos toward Main and the Thursday evening farmer's market, I heard a very familiar voice. It turned out to be my most favorite live folk singer in the whole wide world, Suzanne Holland. She's blind, and from South Africa, and she mesmerizes with her ballads as she strums and sings in English, Swedish, and Afrikaans. 

I sat on the corner where I could hear Suzanne and eat my crepe. Then, I remembered the copy clerk and his sincere compliment and how it changed my day. Suzanne started to look tired, she even closed her eyes and acknowledged her fatigue into the microphone. My shyness tempted me to leave the farmers market without saying a word to her. I had already left a dollar in her jar, wasn't that enough? Back to the memory of the copy center guy. Back to my shyness...but I had to do it. I walked over to Suzanne and told her how much I appreciated her music, that I have a cd of hers and I love it, that I met her at another farmers market and she's the best. I felt a little goofy as she reached for my hand, but at the same time I was relieved. And Suzanne played her heart out for the next several songs, she didn't seem tired at all.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Volunteer for Cancer Awareness: It's Relay for Life Season

In my Career Advisor job at Palo Alto High School I frequently connect our students to volunteer opportunities to help them pursue their interests and passions and to make purposeful post-high school plans. The parent volunteers at the school have assisted me for the past five in creating a database of our students’ community outreach and engagement experiences. Many times, our students attend Relay for Life with American Cancer Society, and finally I was able to attend one of these events myself. The event raises millions of dollars each year around the country for the organization to do research on prevention and treatment of all types of cancer.

The nice thing about Relay for Life (RFL) is that it is community based, with an event in nearly every community in the Bay Area and surrounding communities. Businesses, schools, church congregations and other groups are encouraged to participate in fundraising before the event by gathering pledges for their laps walked around the venue. The organization describes the fundraiser this way on their website,

Relay For Life is the American Cancer Society’s signature activity. It offers everyone in a community an opportunity to participate in the fight against cancer. Teams of people fundraise and camp out at a local high school, park, or fairground and take turns walking or running around a track or path. Each team is asked to have a team member on the track at all times during the event. Relays are 24 hours in length; representing the reality that cancer never sleeps.

During the evening at the event, volunteers place luminarias around the event in memory of cancer survivors or those who have passed away. My family members each decorated a luminaria in honor of someone who we know that has personally been affected by cancer. Unfortunately, we had many to honor. I made my luminaria to recognize my sister’s battle with breast cancer ten years ago. Luckily, she survived, but other members of our extended family had not survived and we honored them as well.

This event is very well organized and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to make a difference in the local and national community. The local chapters are a place where people can get involved with leadership opportunities. Students can even work behind the scenes in a leadership capacity throughout the year. The one suggestion I would make for people who want to volunteer is to sponsor a booth at the event and really make it fun for other attendees. If you go and just walk around the track, it’s okay but not as meaningful as it could be. There were many local organizations at the RFl I attended where they were hosting games and raffling off prizes to make the walk more interesting. At the very least, anyone attending should make a luminaria to honor a cancer survivor or victim. I don’t know a single soul who cannot think of someone in their life who has been affected by cancer. In this day and age, we can all make a difference in the fight to prevent and cure for this scary and often deadly disease.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

What More Could I Have Done? How to Help Homeless Young Adults

Today was blistering hot in the Bay Area, so I waited until early evening to go for my usual Saturday long run. While jogging around an unfamiliar neighborhood, crossing a pedestrian bridge I was at first a bit fearful of the stooped figure sitting in the middle of the walkway. Looking closer, I could see she was a young woman in her twenties--about my oldest daughter Sheridan's age. She was wiping tears from her face, and I said with a look "hello." There was an openness in her eyes and she glanced "hello" back. I continued the run, hoping she wasn't planning to hurt herself on that bridge. As I made my way back home from the run I saw her again, a little farther from the freeway but still stooped and crying. She was completely disheveled, clearly without a home, and I fought back instinctive fearful, judgmental feelings to ask this time, "Are you okay?"
     "I'm Lindsey," she said, "from Gilroy".
     "Do you know where you are?" I asked. 
     "No, I got dropped of by some people who said they would help me, but then they stole my wallet and left me here. I have never been treated so bad!" Even though she had a clean natural beauty, Lindsey was putting on makeup to look "presentable" when she got to a place where someone could help her. She was headed to a shelter on First Street and Gish Road in San Jose, which was about 15 miles from where she sat and she had no idea how she would get there. She had recently run away from a rehab facility, and was very familiar with the shelter.
     "Can I call you a cab?" I offered. 
     She declined, saying "I need this experience right now." 
     We talked more about life, and how each of us had ended up in less than ideal circumstances at times. I told Lindsey that she needed to ask for help, and that she would find a place to stay and eventually she would find herself. She got up from the curb and hugged me, which was startling but welcome. She hugged me again, thanked me, and we wished each other well. I sprinted back to the house to get my phone and figure out who to call, someone who could go pick her up. But then I realized I'm really in no position right now. I said a prayer for young Lindsey, and checked in with my own children by text. I thank the Lord they are well, and hope someday I will be able to give more than a hug or two to help a lost young woman to find her way home. 

How can you help homeless young adults? Each person has a story, just like Lindsey.
Consider donating to or volunteering with these South Bay organizations.
  • Bill Wilson Center:
  • Loaves and Fishes:
  • Sacred Heart Community Services:
  • West Valley Community Services:

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Service-Learning and the Adrenaline Rush of Skiing

There is a mountain in the Wasatch Range, where I feel more alive than any place on earth. It is the 11,000 foot peak where my parents began their life together. My mother was a part-time ski instructor at Alta Ski Resort, and Dad's friends convinced him to fly his little airplane from his home in Palo Alto, California to meet this athletic and beautiful woman on the hill. Dad wasn't much a skier until he saw Mom in action, but how quickly he caught on! And he eventually surpassed her, as they married and soon had toddlers learning to ski. Dad discovered a new adrenaline high with heli-skiing in the Canadian Bugaboo Range. He and his "maverick" buddies at Fairchild would take off for ski adventures, and then take their families to Tahoe in between. As we grew up, my parents took us skiing for pretty much every winter vacation and many weekends--Squaw Valley, Snowbird/Alta, and Sun Valley were our favorites. There is nothing quite like the rush you get from sliding as fast as your body can go, arcing these days on shape skis just like an Olympic racer. As a part-time ski coach myself, I taught many people to love off-piste, powder, chutes, and bumps. Take me to the Wasatch! Except, when I think about the reality of retiring on a part-time income, and how some of my friends back at Snowbird are now facing that fact. 

Everyone needs to have a "Plan B," right? That's what former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Bono said when he visited with my students at Paly a few years ago. And now I realize I'm living my very own Plan B--right here in Palo Alto, where my Daddy started his career more than fifty years ago. This life has come full circle. And how does the daughter of an adrenaline junkie get her fix? By creating something new, that was never there before. I have discovered something really just as exciting as a ski trip to the Bugaboos: hundreds of "Paly" students each year pursuing their passions and interests to make a difference in the world. How can it be? See for yourself. Check out my Snowbird friend Dean Cummings' most incredible heli-skiing video from Valdez, Alaska. THEN, download this year's most amazing Get Involved, Paly resource for community service. Dozens of student reflections on service-learning in high school. If you are not equally impressed by this exciting, adrenaline-packed guidebook of our students' adventures in service, then I owe you a ski lesson. I'll see you at Alta!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Students Get Involved in School-wide Service Day

Palo Alto Mayor Yiawey Yeh Inspires Students Last Spring
Our Students Work in Many Capacities and are Community Assets
Paly's 2nd Annual Project-based Service-Learning Day
Paly's 3rd Annual Service Day is coming up on Tuesday, April 30th. Students who sign up for the all day field trip will fill buses and leave campus to work on projects benefiting more than twenty local organizations. Others can help with  lunchtime projects in the quad--pizza served! Thanks in advance to the dozens of parent and community volunteers  facilitating this project-based service-learning event! Below is a list of proposed sites:
  • Meals on Wheels 
  • Smile for a Lifetime
  • Beechwood School
  • La Mesa Verde
  • Sunrise Senior Living
  • Opportunity Center
  • Palo Alto Art Center
  • Palo Verde Elementary
  • American Cancer Society
  • Young Fives, Palo Alto Unified
  • Lauren's House for Positive Change
  • Ronald McDonald House
  • Kids in Need Foundation
  • Book Share
  • Magnusson's Dairy Farm
  • Ecumenical Hunger Program
  • Creative Montessori
  • Lytton Gardens 
  • Peninsula Open Space Preserve 
On campus, we will host a number of drives for hygiene supplies, pajamas, and school supplies benefiting families in need. This video from Kids in Need Foundation gives an idea of where the school supplies go after being donated at Paly Service Day.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Girl Scouts Serve, Give Cookies to Food Banks and the Military

Sharing the Gift of Caring with Cookies!
 I have been quite impressed with the quality of community service projects performed by our local Girl Scouts. Two of our Seniors at Palo Alto High School, twin sisters Heather and Elizabeth Bowman, are working on their Gold Award projects to benefit their fellow students: a Women in Business Forum to be held on March 5th, and a Science Discovery Festival as part of Paly Service Day on April 30th. The Women in Business Forum showcases local entrepreneurs who will share with  students the secrets of their success. The Science Discovery fair provides a service opportunity for our high school students to teach K-8 students at Beechwood School, a local private school in East Menlo Park. 

My middle daughter really wanted to be a Girl Scout in middle school, but at the time we could not find a troop in our area. I wish we'd been able to form our own. The short time I spent in Girl Scouts in the 1960s provided me a chance to try new things, and to learn more about my community in Los Altos Hills, California. Because our dedicated troop leaders worked to get special group rates around town, I also learned to skate and to bowl thanks to Girl Scouts. I discovered a feeling of accomplishment by selling cookies, and our troop benefited from the fundraising. Cookie prices have increased dramatically over the years, and a box of treats might seem to some a luxury. These days, my family might purchase five or six boxes in a season, sharing them widely with anyone who visits our home in February and March.

Many councils have adopted the "Gift of Caring" community service project, where customers are encouraged to donate cash or a box or two of cookies for a nearby food bank, or for those serving in the military. If you've ever seen the offerings on the shelves at either a food bank or a military canteen, you can see why these were chosen as beneficiaries! So, when those smiling faces outside of the grocery store or coming door-to-door ask you to buy Girl Scout cookies, don't be shy. Purchase some cookies to benefit all of the good work that Girl Scouts do, and throw in an extra box or two for those less fortunate than yourself. Students like Heather and Elizabeth Bowman, along with countless others, will put these funds into community action projects. At just $4 a box, the world becomes a better place one cookie at a time.