Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 25, 2011

Outstanding Non-Profit Company or Organization: Youth Community Service

Inspiring young people to start giving back early

by Carol Blitzer

Sometimes numbers simply speak for themselves: Since 1990, Youth Community Service (YCS) has involved 17,000 students in local projects, providing 110,000 hours of service through more than 40 organizations.

This year alone, more than 1,000 students are participating.

For many, that original interest — whether through a middle- or high-school based service club, a leadership-training program, a life-skills class or a service day — has sparked a lifelong commitment to giving back to the community.

As Dan Dykwel wrote in his nominating letter for the Tall Tree Award for nonprofit organization: "YCS has provided opportunities for students whose hearts are full of grace to make meaningful contributions to their communities."

Leif Erickson, the nonprofit's executive director for the past seven years, sees a connection between youths' self-esteem and service to the community.

"There are many ways (for students) to be successful, not just making straight As. It could be music, sports, service.

"Most students feel there's just one definition, and they're struggling to fit it. Service is just one way kids can be successful," he said.

Starting with just one club on one campus 20 years ago, YCS has grown to multiple collaborations between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto students.

Today, YCS has active student clubs at all three Palo Alto middle schools and both high schools, as well as three East Palo Alto middle schools. This year the group is heavily involved with Project Safety Net, which is focused on increasing student well-being and mental health awareness.

At Gunn High School early this month, more than 300 students participated in the annual Gunn High School Service Day, volunteering in nearly a dozen venues from working with seniors at Lytton Gardens Senior Center to planting acorns in the Stanford hills through the environmental group, Magic.

While the YCS staff lined up the sites, recruited chaperones and arranged for bus transportation, the YCS Interact Club played a leadership role and handled publicity in addition to volunteering, Erickson said. The youth also learned to partner with Key Club, Palo Alto University Rotary Club and others.

YCS is not solely about community service, however. At Menlo-Atherton High School, YCS facilitators run three life-skills electives, with students often referred by Miki Cristerna, the school's student-support coordinator. She identifies students with behavioral or attendance issues who could benefit from the 180 Degree program that develops self-awareness and self-confidence in ninth through 11th graders.

In just the third semester of the program, she's finding "huge differences (in the students, who are) recognizing that adults on campus are here to help them, aren't the bad guys."

Some students have moved into the Freshman Leadership Corps, the Boys & Girls Club or YCS school clubs, taking what they've learned to the next step, and often giving back through mentoring others.

Giving back can become second nature to participants in YCS programs.

Freshman Diquan Richard was surprised when he was recently honored by YCS.

"They gave me an award, but I was just helping," he said.

What has made YCS so successful over the years is its focus on collaboration and partnerships, group leaders say.

"We don't do anything on our own. Everything is with partners," Erickson said.

YCS has expanded to Redwood High School, a continuation school in the Sequoia Union High School District, at the request of that principal.

Today, YCS offers life-skill classes through the school's environmental program, and to teen moms.

"It's a very adaptive curriculum," Erickson said.

While leadership and service clubs thrive in Palo Alto, "We haven't figured a way to bring life-skills program there yet. We're just starting to have conversations," Erickson added.

This summer, YCS is sponsoring a Summer of Service day camp at Ventura School in Palo Alto, where middle school students spend the first week immersed in projects in one of four areas of interest: environment; hunger and homelessness; seniors and health care; and child care and education. During the second week, they learned about another of the three areas.

"This is a process of discovery. ... Part of service learning is students being able to choose and not just doing what they're told," Erickson said.

Erickson not only wants to continue YCS collaborations but to increase their depth.

"(We're looking for) deeper partnerships with each school, each district, in ways that fit their priorities and culture. It just gets richer and richer as we build those relationships with the principals, counselors and teachers," Erickson said.

"We aren't the only solution, but we're in partnership with other organizations. The purpose of all is to help kids discover what they love, what they're good at."

Editor's note: YCS is interested in contacting its alumni, both to stay connected and to find out whether (or how) they are still involved in community service. Alumni can search for "Youth Community Service alumni" on Facebook.com.

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