Three teens on a Palo Alto street with spray paint during school hours might seem like a recipe for delinquency, but ninth-graders Jeremy Revlock, Ben Rothblatt and Yerem Istanboulian were tagging for the community Tuesday morning, May 22.
The Palo Alto High School students took time off from school to repaint faded Midtown neighborhood house numbers on city curbs so emergency personnel can more easily identify homes during a fire, medical response or disaster.
"Or also, if you're ordering pizza at night," Revlock said.
The project was part of Paly's Community Service Day, a school-wide effort when students, teachers and parents work together on service activities. Students helped more than 25 organizations, from playing music for the elderly to digging out invasive plants.
Revlock, Rothblatt and Istanboulian joined Midtown block preparedness coordinator Cynthia Tham for the curb-painting project. They gathered curbside on South Court with paint tray, roller, stencils and spray can at the ready.
Rothblatt laid down a roughly 6-by-8-inch rectangular stencil and deftly rolled white reflective paint across the opening. Revlock and Istanboulian soon followed, taping house-number stencils together into a cardstock frame.
When the white paint dried, they carefully placed the stencils on the surface. Istanboulian held the paper in place, while Revlock sprayed black paint across the letters.
The students would paint numbers at 18 houses before they were done -- with the homeowners' permission -- Tham said. Four teams each paint at approximately 25 locations.
The painting project is a partnership between the students, Youth Community Services and the Midtown Residents Association, she said.
Tham is part of a group of concerned residents who learned in March that Palo Alto youth often feel unwelcome in their own neighborhoods. According to the city's 2010 "developmental assets" survey, only 35 percent of Palo Alto high school students felt valued by their neighbors, and only 22 percent felt valued by their community, Palo Alto Board of Education member Melissa Baten Caswell said.
She urged residents to develop projects with neighborhood youth. Annette Glanckopf, Midtown Residents Association vice-chair, conceived of the curb-painting project as part of a neighborhood response, Tham said.
The strategy seemed to be working on Tuesday. As the boys prepared to paint another curb, they reflected on how public service has helped improve their sense of self.
For many young people making the transition from middle school to high school, a sense of accomplishment and responsibility are important, Revlock said. In middle school, kids still feel as though people expect them to be dependent, but high school poses new challenges.
"You gotta start manning up and taking more responsibility," he said.
Community service has made him feel he is respected by his community, he said.
Istanboulian said that service has improved his value of the community.
"It makes me notice the unity of Palo Alto; it improves my perception of it," he said.
Rothblatt has recently become involved in volunteerism. Last fall he was co-chair of the Duveneck Harvest Carnival.
"It feels amazing," he said.
Tham said the neighborhood association is looking at creating other youth-adult projects -- a mentor directory would pair people in the same neighborhood to list their careers. Through potlucks, they could connect with kids and families who have similar interests.
A neighborhood jobs program could also link youth with residents to provide babysitting and other services, which many residents often give to hired professionals, she said.
Block-sponsored projects also help young people trust their neighbors in times of trouble, the boys said.
As Istanboulian and Revlock smoothed the edges of their handiwork, Tham said all of these things are great for building a sense of purpose.
At the end of the project, someone will check the house numbers to make sure each one is correct. "It's kind of a quality control," Tham said.
But Revlock didn't need anyone's validation.
The white rectangle and black letters jumped out boldly from the curb. Nearby, a faded, flaking marking done by the city years ago looked pale by comparison.
"This is quality," he said, pointing to the trio's finished product. "This is quality work."