Four-year-old Leighanna Longacre was scheduled for open-heart surgery in the morning, but last Monday afternoon she played with a princess elephant. Teen volunteer Matt Salwasser held out the animal puppet in a toy-filled room at Palo Alto's Ronald McDonald house, where he comes every week to help out.
"Look, it's a princess. It has a tiara," he said, prompting Leighanna to giggle and pull the puppet over her wrist.
Matt's presence helps brighten the lives of the children, and their siblings, staying at the house, who are getting care at the nearby Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.
Matt is not alone in his selfless service.
"Overall in the U.S., volunteering is at a 30-year high," said Robert Rosenthal, a spokesperson for Volunteermatch.com, which operates an online database through which people can find opportunities to help.
Older teens -- from ages 16 to 19 -- are one group driving national numbers up, he said.
Cynics may suspect overachieving local teens of trying to bolster their resumes -- and chances for college admission -- with community service. But the 15 teens who volunteer weekly at Ronald McDonald House are there to truly help, said Children's Activity Coordinator Mary Jo Blazek.
"We make them have a four-month commitment. ... We try to weed out the kids who just want hours" to put on college applications, she said.
College is not on Matt's mind when he visits: The easy-going, friendly teen was encouraged by his mother, who had been volunteering for several years, he said.
"I started because Mom thought it was rewarding and she always appreciated our family's health," he said.
The 17-year-old Cupertino native drives up every week to help for a couple hours, spurred by an appreciation of his own good health.
But he also finds in-the-moment enjoyment, such as when Leighanna "cooked" a stew on the play stove and asked Matt to hand over ingredients one by one.
Kids are fun, he said.
Many students feel that way about volunteering, said Kimberley Cowell, Gunn High School's assistant principal to the guidance department. She helps hundreds of teens "register" their community-service hours, so that they are noted on transcripts that will be used in college applications.
Palo Alto's high schools don't explicitly require community service for graduation, although one mandatory class requires students to complete 15 hours, she said.
Yet she has seen students log as many as 500 hours, she said.
Palo Alto High School senior Gabrielle Hadley is on her way there, making thrice-weekly visits since August to elderly residents at Lytton Gardens, a retirement and nursing home in Palo Alto.
Like Matt, she was inspired by family, after caring for a great-grandmother who slowly deteriorated under the effects of Alzheimer's disease, forgetting everyone's name except for Gabrielle's.
There is little chance of 86-year-old Lytton Gardens resident Mary Harvey forgetting anyone's name, however. An observant woman whose Brooklyn accent remains undamaged even after a stroke affected her speech, she said Gabrielle's visits "fill the gaps" in her life.
Not being able to see or hear perfectly and coping with the infirmities of old age are challenges, but Gabrielle seems to naturally intuit her needs, she said.
And so it seemed during a visit earlier this month, when the two went over an activities schedule.
"Do you want to go 'Beauty Time?' That sounds weird," Gabrielle said, laughing.
Harvey agreed and nixed the idea, signing up for a simple manicure instead.
And although Harvey's children visit often, many seniors lack the familiar comfort of loved ones, Gabrielle said.
"Their families never visit them or spend time talking to them. Even though Lytton Gardens is an amazing place, it's no substitute for family," said the teen, who recalls good times with her great-grandmother when she visits.
About 100 teen volunteers from as far as San Jose and Belmont help out at Lytton Gardens each week, Director of Volunteers Alisa Dichter said.
"A lot of times it has to do with service requirements from high school but a lot of them finish their service requirement and they choose to stay with us, which is wonderful," Dichter said.
"They enjoy it or they make friends with a resident," she said.
And when teens enjoy themselves, others can relax, too.
"You can go ahead and leave the room if you want," Blazek told parents sitting a bit awkwardly at a child-size table during one of Matt's recent visits to Ronald McDonald House's playroom.
"This is your time to just 'hunnnnnh'," she said, exhaling deeply as though setting down a heavy load. The parents chuckled, then glanced at Matt, who didn't look up from a game of make-believe.