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About this blog: I was born and raised in Palo Alto, and graduated from Palo Alto High in 2013. For the lion's share of that time, I had a starry-eyed adoration for my hometown, and all its perks: top-notch schools, safe neighborhoods, and a boomi...  (More)

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Community Revisited, Part One: Would I Raise a Family in Palo Alto?

Uploaded: Jan 29, 2018
These past few weeks, I have thought quite a bit about community. I've been attending Bible studies and discussions at Stanford, specifically focused on community; I've pondered what meaningful post-college friendships look like, as my roommates and classmates spread across the globe; and I've been interpreting my own role in the spheres which I inhabit. These reflections have led me to take a pause from this series' normal stories and reflections of hardship and perseverance. After all, the series was meant in part to shed light on the suffering (and therefore humanity) of those around us (and therefore ourselves).

So this week, I will be sharing two posts which I've previously written, on the idea of community. The current piece was my first-ever writing for The Palo Alto Weekly; the second takes a more personal approach, from the vantage point of one of my communities at Stanford. There is no specific agenda for either of these pieces in the present context -- I only encourage others to read them now, in the context of the incredible and powerful stories of strength which have illuminated this series thus far.


In June of this 2017, both my body and mind were in strange places. My body, in Thailand: racing through bustling Bangkok traffic, where the only apparent rule was that there were no rules. My childhood friend (let's call him Derek) and I were packed into the back of a rickety tuk-tuk; the air we breathed was a mix of street food and smog.

My mind was in an equally odd situation. In this small tuk-tuk, Derek and I had been asking big questions — about where we were, where we were going, and where we came from. We discussed blurred realities from our pasts and blurrier dreams for our futures. Amid all that blurriness — or maybe it was the car exhaust — Derek asked a clear question, which clouded everything: "Would you raise a family in Palo Alto?"

That simple question twisted my mind — more than a recent Thai massage had twisted my hip flexor. Years ago, my answer would have been a resounding "Yes!" But at that moment, the answer was not so simple.

Derek and I both grew up in Palo Alto. After graduating from Paly in 2013, we landed at respective liberal arts colleges: Derek at a prestigious New England school, and I at Kenyon College in Ohio. Today, our post-graduate paths are ready to cross again: Derek works at Facebook as a software engineer, while I research anatomy and biochemistry at Stanford and SLAC. The two of us celebrated our impending adulthood by traveling through Southeast Asia in June. That was where I faced Derek's familiar, yet perplexing question.

"Umm..." was all I could muster. "I don't know."

I wasn't sure which confused me more: the question itself or the fact that I couldn't immediately answer in the positive. Like so many of my schoolmates, I grew up revering Palo Alto and Silicon Valley. We took pride in our top-ranked schools and global reputation. We gushed over local celebrities, from Steve Jobs to James Franco to Jeremy Lin. Even our problems fostered pride — unaffordable housing made it impressive that our parents could, indeed, afford homes. The city was too good to be true.

Too good to be true. Maybe that's why Derek's inquiry was so perplexing. Like the subtle incongruities of dystopian worlds, something just didn't feel right about settling down in Palo Alto — something I never felt as a child but do now.

A few weeks after the trip, I was into my postgraduate rhythm and beginning research at Stanford. Every morning, I went running through familiar neighborhoods. I would shower, eat, then drive past childhood schools on the way to work. But still, something felt off — something I couldn't figure out. Until last weekend.

At a local cafe, I met another high school friend for breakfast. We talked about her artwork, my religious life and everything in between. As I put forth Derek's inquiry to this friend, a voice cried out: "No way!"

We turned in surprise to find an older woman staring back.

"Sorry to interrupt, but I overheard your conversation. I've lived in Palo Alto for 50 years and raised my kids here."

So why the interjection? She did live in Palo Alto and had for five decades. What could be her issue?

"It's a totally different place now; it wasn't always this way."

The woman explained herself: For many today, Palo Alto feels more cardboard than community; more ideal than reality. I believe this sentiment was the source of my original unease. For example: I'm a social person and care about my friends and family. But I don't even know my neighbors' names. How could that be?

A few days later, I explained my conflicted thoughts to Derek over dinner. On the one hand, I have deep bonds here — a Stanford Christian fellowship, my family and my friends like Derek, to name a few. On the other hand, I long for a community that functions as an organism: composed of different organs and limbs, yet co-dependent and integrated. I feel as though my organism is scattered about — its dismembered parts coalescing into smaller, isolated pockets. The heart and lungs have common goals but are uninterested in the foot's agenda. The brain respects the kidneys but considers them "work friends."

Oddly enough, I feel more attached to Knox County, Ohio (where Kenyon is located), than I do Palo Alto. Somehow, this man-bun-wearing biochemist feels more connected to a Central Ohio community — which heavily supported Donald Trump — than one that shaped his own political and cultural views. I've just uttered the Trump buzzword, so I might as well utilize that example.

The custodian in my Kenyon dormitory was a 60-year-old Trump supporter (I'll call him Jeff). We represented wildly different backgrounds and political views. Every day, Jeff informed me of the latest right-wing Hillary Clinton conspiracy, and I told him his sources were untrustworthy. I'd ask why he was so riled-up over guns, and he'd expound upon his cultural attachment to firearms. Rarely, if ever, did we see eye-to-eye.

My Facebook echo-chamber spewed rhetoric about the racism and ignorance of all Trump supporters — I had many reasons to ignore Jeff. Jeff had cleaned privileged students' vomit and trash for over 30 years — he had every reason to think me an entitled brat. But we existed within a community. That community gave reason to breathe, feel and think as part of a larger organism. There was argument, yes, but also unity. Therefore, our differences were not divisive; they were instructive. I came to know Jeff as a caring and humble man who wants to save women from sex-trafficking. He came to see me — a man-bun-wearing kid from California — as a good friend.

I see fewer unexpected connections like that back home. Had Jeff and my differences arisen in Silicon Valley, we might have simply ignored each other. We might have checked our phones for the latest Tesla news. No longer would differences have become opportunities for deeper unity — at best, they'd foster mutual indifference.

I'm under no delusion that Palo Alto is made up of isolationist, unfeeling automata. I'm aware that this beautiful place holds compassionate, kind beings. Palo Alto is full of teachers, nurses and people who care about one another regardless of title.

That is exactly why I voice my troubling uncertainty — uncertainty regarding Silicon Valley's culture, which has placed blinders over our collective vision. That culture is fixated on status, not service; on power, not people. We might benefit by pulling those blinders back. We might come together in unexpected ways, by engaging our community as much as we do our work — or, God forbid, our phones. Assisting in a homeless shelter or understanding another's worldview might benefit not only the community but also ourselves.

Today, my answer to Derek is still: "I don't know." I don't know if Palo Alto is my ideal home. All I can say is that I — and many of my peers — feel something is twisted (other than my hip flexor). We see striking inequality across U.S. Highway 101 and crowded loneliness back home. I'm no longer in a tuk-tuk, blinded by car exhaust, but observations like that still make my mind uneasy. Now, I'm asking us to clear our vision, remove our blinders, and refocus on what matters most: community, people and love.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Moving away some day, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Jan 29, 2018 at 3:39 pm

For me, the answer is no.

People are way too focused on money above all else here. My kids are unlikely to ever be able to buy a house, or even condo here.

PA medium home price is $3m. That would require an annual income of about $500k and down-payment of over 500k, and monthly mortgage of $15k. Obviously, even in Silicon valley, hardly anyone makes that kind of money.

Even in San Jose, a modest $1m house takes an annual income of $175,000 and 200k down.

I love the bay area, but it's been wrecked by money. Both too much and not enough. People spend half their time talking about money and politics, instead of family, community, etc. And those phones...

Posted by Bryan, a resident of another community,
on Jan 29, 2018 at 3:40 pm

That's an interesting question and observation of what has transformed in Palo Alto. However, I ask myself if the transformation has only occurred in Palo Alto which is a proxy for Silicon Valley, or if it may have indeed occurred in more areas of California, or perhaps even the United States or the world in general. My gut tells me that this transformation has been happening because of what technology like phones, social media and asynchronous information [news] dissemination has enabled - which is for us to stay informed without being connected to people but instead only requiring a connection to the Internet.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 29, 2018 at 4:26 pm

I think the question of whether you would or would not should be completely separate from the question of whether you could afford to live here.

As you are probably very well aware, it takes a lot of money to buy a home in Palo Alto and even renting in Palo Alto is expensive. Just because you grew up here it doesn't necessarily follow that you came from a wealthy family, just that your family were willing to make financial decisions that would allow it. Perhaps at the time you were born, guessing 22 years or so ago, the affordability of Palo Alto was different to the present time. But your parents made a decision on what they valued at the time considering you as part of the equation.

For a young person nowadays to put down roots and consider raising a family here financial considerations are probably a lot different to the ones your parents' made. But nonetheless it is still the case that people are still moving here with young families.

The question of whether you would raise a family here being discussed outside the financial situation is an interesting one. Some of the things you probably remember from your childhood and youth are gone e.g. Palo Alto Bowl, Laserquest, and some of the restaurants are gone too. What is replacing them for young families, I wonder? Schools have bigger populations and things like getting onto the popular sports teams is harder due to more competition, as are class president, etc. Rumors of stresses and pressures in high school are probably just as rampant as when you were in Paly, I doubt if much has changed from your experience.

But on the bright side, there are still wonderful families, good communities around whatever your interests are, good parks, good camps, good weather and availability of good foods and healthy exercise. As with most things, if parents are willing to invest their time and effort in their kids lives, there is a lot of positives. If on the other hand, parents want the village to raise their kids allowing others to put in more time and effort as finances allow, through childcare, babysitters, tutoring, etc. then there is also an abundance of those also. Crime is still relatively low, peer groups are generally diverse and accommodating, and no matter the kid's interest there is probably a group for them to meet with like minded people.

Good discussion starter for all who have grown up here. Thanks for writing.

Posted by Robyn, a resident of another community,
on Jan 30, 2018 at 12:14 pm

The financial aspect cannot be ignored. We see people living in million dollar home standing in the breadline at the local church and 1/6th of the population is "food insecure" with many children receiving tax funded vouchers for a meal at school.
That must have a psychological effect on the relevant people.
Also the vanishing open space should be studied.
Good Luck.

Posted by dejiii, a resident of Midtown,
on Jan 31, 2018 at 8:59 am

dejiii is a registered user.

Go to less expensive locations, get gangs, and worse.
Go to less expensive locations, get often very right politics vs middle.
Grass is not greener on the other side.
Major reason Palo Alto is in such demand: Jobs, Schools, Climate,
Crime level low.
Off shore influx of home purchases has had huge impact on cost
of homes as well.
Is what it is. Everyone complains about something.
Some complain because cannot get.
Some complain because they got, but everything is changing.
I worked my Axx off to get back to Palo Alto 1987.
I worked my Axx off to buy a home in 1994 with 85% of all I owned.
I worked my Axx off to finally pay off the mortgage this year.
Above is half of my life to achieve my goals, and dragging a family
with me LOL...... No family money, on my own.....
So quit your whining, work your Axx off as I did half of your life.
Enjoy the neighborhoods and sectors of local life you wish.
Ignore this and that which pertains to nothing in your life.
Fight for what you want improved (speeders in my case), and enjoy
what we have. Or what you can get.....
GRASS IS NOT GREENER on the cheaper side.....
Move to the gulf coast area of USA. See what has transpired there the
past 15 years. Very affordable homes as well. Epic Hurricanes, Epic Floods,
Homes in foreclosure (rebound happening now), buy for $140k. Enjoy the bugs, humidity, and lordy those neighbors if you can find a job.

Posted by Long Gone, a resident of another community,
on Jan 31, 2018 at 11:40 am

I was born in Palo Alto and lived in the area for most of my life.
It is now like a foreign country. While there was never much of a community feel to the area, it was a good place to grow up. Now it is filled with people who are here to get rich working in tech. It's more like San Francisco than where we lived. Crowded dirty noisy, terrible traffic, high costs. One of the reasons we moved was to get our son out of the super competitive, materialistic life. The number of suicides at my old high school and the unwillingness of the locals to admit what is causing them sums up the area's problmems.

Posted by Martha Dogood, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jan 31, 2018 at 7:40 pm

Martha Dogood is a registered user.

Sadly, I wouldn't like to raise children in the Palo Alto of today since it's only a shadow of its former self. As others comment, it has been ruined by money, greed, and many international transient residents who have a serious lack of any true American community spirit. [Portion removed.]
We arrived here in 1991, back when you could see at least a bit of the old Palo Alto in much of the town. I realize for those who go much farther back, they may think the original charm and character was already lost by then. Perhaps it was. Yet for us, it was a magical world in those first few years.

We arrived fresh out of graduate school in New York City, my husband having received a position at Stanford. We didn't buy a car for over 7 years as we rode our bicycles everywhere, or took the train to SF. The town still had mostly long time residents who were the cornerstone of the community. Many of them are now gone.

It would have been great to raise children in Palo Alto in the 1950s or 1960s. Back then, it would have been incredibly exciting to be a kid in this town. Perhaps your parents were in the tech industry and going to the many backyard neighborhood barbecues with friends. Palo Alto was well managed, budgets were balanced, American common sense ruled the day. This was when Silicon Valley started its meteoric rise, attracting great talent from around America to design and build great things.

The great wealth these hardworking people created sustained multiple generations, in fact some of us still live from the wealth this "Greatest Generation" created. These included our brave young men who fought in WWII and came back home to get engineering degrees through the GI Bill and then helped build Silicon Valley.

HP is a great example of what made Palo Alto great back then. Bill and Dave, and their families, were great examples of corporate leaders who cared deeply about their community, and about ALL their fellow Americans. They invested massive time and financial support into our community. They were not globalists, instead they were the models of "think globally, act locally" American citizens. They understood deeply what this meant and how it included their patriotic duty to their country, their fellow Americans, and their community of Palo Alto.

Flash forward to today, we have a town of mostly transients, or "globalist elites", and a larger than is good percentage of international people who could care less about the long term fate of Palo Alto, let alone any sense of American assimilation. Many of them bought homes here as investments and have very little interest in being American, let alone "Palo Altan."

Today Facebook is one of the leading "technology" companies, replacing the true technology titans of HP, Varian, Intel, etc, of the 1960s. Those were the great companies, led by great people.

Facebook is simply an advanced database and massive advertising platform which has most of its hardware servers built to spec in Communist China, not really inventing much useful new "technology". It makes its living as a massive parasite feeding off humans who post their personal life on an advertising platform.

Also, instead of giving business to other US companies, as the titans did in the old Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg only helped hasten the end of USA designed and manufactured computers by actively giving contracts to Communist China and ignoring their American brothers and sisters. They just announced a "giving" campaign which is a pittance to the damage they've already done.

I remain optimistic long term, that someday perhaps a new generation of young Americans will reclaim their great heritage here, and rebuild a great new Palo Alto community with a focus on what is best for their children. If it ever once again becomes a community focused on core American values and what is best for generations of Americans to follow, and build new great things, then it will rise like a Phoenix. If only we had 1,000 Elon Musks, true builders. That's what we need today to make Palo Alto Great Again.

Posted by dejiii, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 1, 2018 at 9:05 am

dejiii is a registered user.

I read all these comments about days gone by.
WHAT TOWN, CITY, PLACE in the entire USA has stayed
the same, "small community" where everyone knows your business?
And what was so great about Palo Alto in the 1970s and 1980s as
I grew up here. My bikes got stolen every other year. Half
people I knew were semi bums. Fathers had jobs, but the goal was
to keep the job vs move up, houses were in semi dis-repair, but
we did have that guy who drove his vegetable for sales truck 7mph
blocking traffic LOL. Loved the vegetable man.
Palo Alto Community. Then you will see it with others who are involved.
Palo Alto Junior Museum, Palo Alto Sports, Palo Alto Heritage, Palo Alto
Foothills Parks, Palo Alto Schools, the list is endless. VOLUNTEER, participate, get out of your house, get to know people. Problem simply is:
Those who cannot get, WHINE. Those who do not contribute fuss about the
old days (I am closer to that age group now LOL).... My biggest complaint is the Mega Mansions in Mid Town Palo Alto towering over the single family homes and the ridiculous speeding by Moms driving their kids to school 45mph in their SUV on my 25mph block..... It is what it is. The old days were not better, nor closer, nor safer, no were people any friendlier. We do have a huge influx of non English speaking neighbors with off shore money I agree. But again, things change and evolve. Nothing I have read here is different from any other city, town, that one group moves in one moves out. We are lucky. Or $500k homes now have a $2.5mm valuation. Go cry me another whine-ee tale of woe. Bunch of complainers and few DO-ERS.
Palo Alto is far from perfect, never was. But better than most other locations you can live in from 5 miles away to 3000 miles away. Whaaa Whaaa.

Posted by Well, we're not moving..., a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Feb 1, 2018 at 3:05 pm

Well, we're not moving... is a registered user.

We are raising kids here, and we are staying. We feel very fortunate to live in an area with good schools and parks, safe and bikable streets, nice families from all over the globe, interesting extra-curriculars, clean environment, amazing (though too dry) weather, and access to beautiful places nearby. Our neighborhood is very walkable, with kids who get together over the summer and families who know one another. We don't see much money-ism in the public school system, which is great. (I think the private schools are different.) At least from my perspective, the kids are relatively insulated from the excessive costs and stresses of living here, assuming their family is able to manage those.

That said, I think it's a very tough place for parents -- costs, crowding, stress -- and that can affect the kids. I do not think the sacrifices needed to move here these days are worth it.

Posted by Fiona W, a resident of another community,
on Feb 1, 2018 at 7:49 pm

My home was purchased in 1958 by a young couple (she was 30 and a stay-at-home Mom and he was 31 with a bright shiny new security clearance as a $5/hour engineer at Lockheed). The house cost them $24,999 (I still have the sign) and they paid off the 30-year loan in 1988. Those gigantic 70-foot trees you see with the massive trunks? We kids helped plant them in the 1950's.

As children, we ran free from "after chores" to "set the table." We were safe, we were happy, and we were loved. We played in the empty fields and snuck through the barbed-wire fences and counted coup on cows. Our creeks were creeks instead of cement troughs and we caught tadpoles and watched them grow legs and released the baby frogs into our gardens. We snuck into the abandoned farmhouses and wandered through the rooms imagining life at the turn of the century. On Saturdays, the Dads all got out and mowed the lawns and shared tools and helped each other, and the Moms got out and shared recipes and gossip. And every kid knew that if we got caught doing something stupid, we'd be spanked by the Dad who caught us. Everyone I knew attended classes with the same kids from K thru 12 (most of us are Facebook friends these days), our folks partied together, the older kids got their first babysitting jobs caring for the younger kids across the street or down the block, and we all knew everyone's secrets.

That's what Palo Alto used to be like.

From my grandmother to my grandsons, five generations of us have watched Palo Alto grow and change. We are glad for the egregiously inflated housing prices because that's money in our pockets, but we've seen our streets clotted with drivers who routinely floor it to 50 mph between stop signs, striped to turn two-lane lazy roads into four lane raceways, our neighborhoods destroyed by investors who could not care less about the small-town "feel" of Palo Alto so long as they can tear down every house they see and build those ugly mixed-architecture monstrosities all in a row, our schools demand cash payments for every little club and activity, our utility company slams us with huge "adjustment" bills because they can't be bothered to read the meters every month, and the power is starting to fail routinely.

On my street, there are three families who moved in in 1958 and we are holding the small-town line, but it won't last much longer. My kids are urging me to sell the house and get out, and I plan to very soon. I am 65 now, and when the last neighbor who watched me grow up is gone, I'm moving, too. Palo Alto is over, so far as I'm concerned. It was a bright, sweet, shining place to be a child and a young mother, but it's over. My grandsons are growing up in semi-rural (but liberal) communities far away and that's where they belong. Palo Alto had its moment, but that moment has passed. Children need space and air. I would never bring a child here to raise. Not any more, and probably not ever again.

Posted by Common sense, a resident of another community,
on Feb 2, 2018 at 9:42 am

Thank you Fiona W., it's refreshing to see actual historical perspective for a change. (Compared to the more typical posts by people who may even be your age or older, but who only first saw Palo Alto in 1981 or 1995 or even 2007; who perceive their own first encounter, whenever it was, as the "old days," then opine about how radically everything has changed since.) This is a reminder that millions of people were living in the Bay Area already 60 and more years ago; many of them and their descendants are still present, therefore enormous continuity of memory exists if you just look for it. (My family were Bay-Area newcomers in the later 1800s, as a child I could talk to relatives who remembered those days. Neighbor across the street is a ninth-generation native.)

By the way, $24,999 was above average for a Bay-Area house in 1958. Silicon Valley (as Hoefler would later dub it, for the semiconductor industry -- started, incidentally, not by Hewlett-Packard at all, that's a way-later pop-culture conflation, but by Shockley Semiconductor on San Antonio in 1956) was underway and starting to boom, along with the pre-existing technology firms including H-P and others even older. In many pleasant Bay-Area towns farther from the boom, you could get nice houses then for under $20k or even under $15k.

Posted by Well, we're not moving..., a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Feb 2, 2018 at 10:13 am

Well, we're not moving... is a registered user.

Fiona, thanks for the beautiful description. It is indeed becoming less common for US kids to grow up in touch with nature. I'm not sure that bodes well for our planet. Makes you wonder about what we are actually achieving in the guise of efficiency and progress and growth of all kinds...

Posted by dejiii, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 2, 2018 at 6:25 pm

Common Sense, been here since 1962. Start contributing to the city and stop whining. Is what it is. Every City, Town, spot in America is faster, bigger, busier than 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and even year 2000. Get off your internet and participate in Palo Alto Community programs. Stop whining all of you.
Nature, good lord, been to the palo alto museum? Been to Foothills Park for the nature walks. I worked both and contribute time and money to both.
Oh Baylands interpretive center. Lordy, worked there as well summers while at Paly.
WHine Whine Whine. PARTICIPATE and enjoy what you have. People screaming and paying huge sums to buy your home. LEAVE, but wait till you see your tax bill. OMG, its a doozy on many of us who bot in 1990s for $400k and is a $2mm home today. Complain complain complain. Its amazing. Like I said before, go to the gulf coast, enjoy the $150,000 homes, the heat, the bugs, the lack of jobs, and your neighbors with limited education and more.
ENJOY WHAT YOU HAVE!!! People are kicking and screaming to be where you are and have the wonderful Palo Alto services we have. ITS NOT PERFECT. Join group like I said before: Palo Alto Sports, Palo Alto Education, Palo Alto Neighborhood clubs, Foothlls Park, Junior Museum or Palo ALto community center. Yes hate the speed of drivers and mega mansions popping up everywhere. But I participate, and do my best instead of complaining about days gone by and they were not that fabulous I would want them again.

Posted by pa Native, a resident of Midtown,
on Feb 3, 2018 at 10:54 pm

I grew up here. So did my husband. I then left, lived all over the USA. New England, South, Southeast and the Southwest. We have been back for some years now, with family here all along. Our child is now going to the same schools we went too. And while its true that nothing stays the same and we can 'never go home again' This place has changed at warp speed, it is a night and day difference in less than a quarter century. Nowhere I have lived in the USA has changed as fast at the peninsula.

I miss the sense of community. The sleepy nights. I liked it when there were about 1/3 the amount of cars on the road, the dead playing at Stanford, the carpenters sharing houses with teachers. The hippies and the activist's and the artists. They were the color in this community, and they are gone. We now have money money money. Who has more,who has less.

My inlaws are surrounded by ugly mcmansions in old palo alto, including one built by a son for his parents, who live in it about 1month of the year, the rest of the time it sits empty.

Construction noise literally never ends here. Im so over it. Cant wait until our child graduates so we can leave.

Just, ugh.

Posted by Forty Years Palo Alto, a resident of another community,
on Feb 27, 2018 at 11:32 am

I hope Part II answers: where are the other places that provide the sense of place we are yearning for ( the ones of us that are " Palo Alto / Bay Area Refugees "

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Sign-up now for 5K Run/Walk, 10k Run, Half Marathon

The 39th annual Moonlight Run and Walk is Friday evening, September 29. Join us under the light of the full Harvest Moon on a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon. Complete your race in person or virtually. Proceeds from the race go to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, benefiting local nonprofits that serve families and children in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.