Palo Alto Weekly

Notes & Comments - April 26, 2006

Our Town: Giving kids hope

by Don Kazak

East Palo Alto residents were sad, shocked and hurt at the shooting death of Police Officer Richard May in January. Police Chief Ron Davis let people vent their emotions at a special meeting in late January.

A lot of words were spoken that night, many very eloquently. But one young man spoke so passionately about young people that he stilled the room — with words that apply to all communities.

"Do not stigmatize your children," he said. "Teens from different backgrounds and races are embracing each other. The children are coming to the Boys and Girls Club every day and putting their differences aside."

The speaker, Arash Daneshzadeh, is the teen director at the club. His background is unusual, to say the least.

Daneshzadeh, 25, is Iranian. His family fled Tehran in 1987 during the Iran-Iraq war. He lost a cousin in that war. He had earlier lost a brother and a sister during the fundamentalist Islamic revolution of 1979 that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power.

He said his father protested both the regimes of the former Shah and that of Khomeini.

"He got a brick to his head," Daneshzadeh said of his father.

His mother and father both attended graduate schools at American universities. Daneshzadeh, who has a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Davis, hopes to go to graduate school to study developmental psychology.

He works every day with young people, many of whom have seen tragedy in their lives but are hopeful for something better.

"I've known some who have lost a family member to violence. They're a little less trusting. You just have to be there for them."

"No one expects these kids to succeed," he continued. They sometimes talk about gangs. "They are curious," he said. But he called gangs an easy way out compared to working hard in school to get ahead.

"There is a buoyant optimism in a lot of them," he said. "Some kids just want a family away from their house."

Daneshzadeh speaks English without an accent. He also speaks his native Farsi, Arabic, and learned to speak Spanish. Working with Latino kids isn't a stretch for him. He grew up in the Mission District of San Francisco and later San Mateo. His mother, who works as a city planner in Fresno, is something of an activist and was always taking him to events. He learned to volunteer at social agencies while still in school.

"I was always drawn to it, working with kids," he said. "I feel I am a counselor, a mentor, a social worker."

Daneshzadeh started working at the Boys and Girls Club in January. He volunteered at the club when it opened six years ago, and had been drawn back to it.

The teen room where he works has computers and a large pool table. But it isn't just a place for kids to hang out.

"We mandate that they be involved in classes and programs," he said. Many are from families who can't afford the club's membership fee and are on scholarships. The teens in the club's leadership program are trying to raise money to attend a national conference later this spring in Washington, D.C., which would be a big deal for them.

"I like to push kids, to expose them to opportunities," he said. "It's our job as adults to expose them to as much as possible until something latches on." Half of the high school students from East Palo Alto will drop out before graduating, he said, which makes motivating them all the more important.

"If you're going to be this child's friend, you have to be ready," he said. "It's about consistency and not judging."

While Daneshzadeh and his parents were able to leave Iran, he still has a large extended family in Iran. "I'm not just here for myself," he said. "I represent a family that wasn't allowed to escape."

He's an immigrant working with many children of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty should take a bow.

Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.

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