Guest Opinion: Service to others — gateway to youth well-being
Several years ago a family moved to Palo Alto in the summer, and their older son entered high school as a freshman — not knowing a soul.
His parents later learned that each day he would come home from school and climb to the top of the walnut tree in the back yard. He would stay up there all afternoon, feeling unconnected and wishing he had never heard of Palo Alto.
Somehow he wound up at a Youth Community Service Club gathering at his school, and nervously signed up to volunteer at the Palo Alto VA Hospital in the Alzheimer's Ward.
Alone, he went each week to visit with the patients and to help dig in the courtyard garden. He liked that the Alzheimer's patients would laugh at the same jokes every time he told them. He looked forward to his visits and invited other YCS students to join him. Soon they had a weekly team of student volunteers at the VA.
That student was our son, Will. He later told us how much those early links had meant to him. In service he found the lifeline every young person feels they need in school — a group of like-minded friends and ground to stand on. He enjoyed feeling that he was valued for making a difference in the lives of others.
His early discovery and his later YCS Club leadership triggered my own journey — from a 25-year career in corporate marketing to my role today as executive director of the Youth Community Service organization.
In my seven years as YCS director, I have learned a great deal from our local Project Cornerstone organization, the group that tracks and promotes social-emotional health factors among youth in Santa Clara County.
Reinforcing the lesson my own son taught me, Project Cornerstone leaders tell me "service to others is the gateway to a whole host of positive relationships, opportunities, values and skills that youth need to thrive."
According to Project Cornerstone's research, benefits young persons can acquire through service include the sense that the community values youth and that youth are seen as resources. Through service, young people can foster values and skills such as helping others, equality and social responsibility, and interpersonal and cultural competence.
They can gain a sense of purpose, a sense of personal power and self-esteem.
Our son began to learn personal and social skills as a high school student recruiting other students to volunteer. He uses those skills today mediating conflict among health care providers in Massachusetts.
Next month the Palo Alto school district will provide a benchmark for our community by administering Project Cornerstone's Developmental Assets Survey in our schools. The results will help us identify ways we can better support our young people as they grow.
In our own research at YCS, we have learned that youth with a strong sense of self-efficacy believe in their abilities to take effective actions to serve the needs of others in specific ways. Young people can increase this sense of personal effectiveness, or ability to make a difference, through service to others.
Self-efficacy can be an important element in building the resiliency young people need to navigate the challenges of adolescence in our community.
At YCS, I also learned from research by former Berkeley professor Andrew Furco, now at the University of Minnesota. He reported on three areas of engagement gained by youth who are involved in learning through service, or "service learning." Those are civic engagement, social engagement and academic engagement.
Civic engagement: After Hurricane Katrina's devastation in New Orleans, I watched student volunteers learn skills in writing letters to government leaders to support East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica's efforts to win emergency funding to repair weakened levees that protect his community's low-lying neighborhoods.
Social engagement: I watched middle-school students in YCS "Summer of Service" camps from East Palo Alto and Palo Alto exercise new social skills in cross-cultural understanding and reciprocity as they volunteered together to serve meals in homeless programs.
Academic engagement: I watched freshmen volunteers on a San Francisquito Creek watershed-quality project stretch their mental muscles to construct meaning and make connections across disciplines as they compared service experiences on our local creek with a Guadalupe River project in San Jose.
For middle-school students in particular, I've seen that service to others can build confidence, empathy and an emerging understanding of their place in the community that can serve them well as they face challenges that lie ahead.
Palo Alto City Councilman and Oakland Assistant City Auditor Yiaway Yeh was once a middle-school student growing up in Palo Alto. On his website, he describes his journey to public service that began as a shy student who "fell in with a well-organized and committed community-service crowd."
In high school, he remembers, "I found the easy smiles and laughs while playing piano at Lytton Gardens and planting trees up in the (open space) Preserves to be a relief from AP academics and adolescent pressures. Community service provided me with opportunities to meet and serve with students from surrounding cities.
"I developed a sense of how Palo Alto's resources were special, that I was fortunate to live in such a community, and that I had a responsibility to always understand what was going on in my community."
Yiaway and my son were best friends and co-leaders in their high school's YCS Club and student government. I am grateful today that each of them discovered that service to others could become the gateway to confidence, empathy and well-being. And as a bonus it encouraged them both toward careers in public service.
For Will, it is indeed a long way from lonely afternoons up in a walnut tree.
Leif Erickson is executive director of Youth Community Service (YCS) with offices in Greendell campus in Palo Alto and Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto. YCS is a community-based non-profit that was started 20 years ago as a partnership of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto and their school districts, along with Stanford's Haas Center and the YWCA. Erickson can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.