Holiday Spirit

Darian Huiltron-Riverra, a senior at East Palo Alto Academy, delivers a practice closing statement to her debate coach, Kwodwo Morre, during a coaching session on campus after school on Nov. 18. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Posted December 13, 2019

Through the art of debate, students find their voice
High schoolers take on an activity many fear: public speaking

by Jamey Padojino

Jules Thomas has always been confident in his public speaking skills, but nerves got the best of him when he first entered the world of debate.

During his freshman year of high school, he was intimidated by the sight of people speed talking through their points and felt challenged when he faced rebuttal arguments from the opposing team.

At his first tournament, he was stumped by a question and ended up losing the match. The loss was enough to make him stop participating with the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League for a while. With his mother's encouragement, he improved his skills by watching a video of himself in a debate round and then felt motivated to return.

On the night before a debate tournament last school year, he was up from 2-5 a.m. reading as many articles as he could on the topic of selling guns to Afghanistan and Iran to drill key ideas in his head.

He was thrilled when he and his partner were assigned to argue against the issue and shocked when his team was named the winner.

"Are you sure?" he recalled asking the judge.

His partner quickly told him to be quiet and accept the result.

"I felt that victory," he said in an interview with the Weekly. "I felt like the hard work that I put into (it is) the reason why I won."

Thomas, a 16-year-old homeschooled junior, is one of nearly 30 students in East Palo Alto involved with the debate league, which partners with the East Palo Alto Academy, Oxford Academy and College Track (where Thomas attends weekly practices).

The nonprofit debate league received a $5,000 grant this year from the Palo Alto Weekly Fund to help pay for the league's head coaches, the weeklong Summer Debate Institute (at which students practiced their public speaking skills with the San Francisco cast of "Hamilton") and tournament-related expenses.

Some debate programs revolve around the goal of winning tournaments, but for this debate league, it's all about what the students gain from the activity, said Mecca Billings, the nonprofit's director of development.

The Holiday Fund has also supported the league's mentoring program, through which students visit local companies and meet professionals who tell them how debate has impacted their careers, Billings said.

A bulk of the students' time is spent on research, debates against one another and mental preparation to enter a tournament with help from their head coach, Kwodwo Moore.

"I'm not very different than the students. I try not to put myself above them," said Moore, who first became involved in debate eight years ago while he was a student at Emeryville High School.

"Public speaking ... helps to build character and strength and a sense of self in the people who do it."

Moore used his enthusiasm for debate during a recent Monday afternoon inside an East Palo Alto Academy classroom to motivate five students, most of whom are freshmen.

After fueling up on snacks, the teens prepared for a tournament at Santa Clara University by reviewing the three areas competitors need to cover within a policy debate: identifying the harms, describing the barriers around the issue and proving their plan is solvent.

They then dove into a debate in which they argued in support of a resolution composed by Moore: "The United States federal government should tell landlords in East Palo Alto not to charge more than $2,000 a month in rent to anyone."

Each student hesitated as they stepped up to the front of the classroom and carefully delivered their arguments, often looking down at their notes as the timer ticked away.

"The problem is the rent is too expensive," freshman Aaliyah Johnson said.

"We should try helping (homeless) people because we obviously care about the people of EPA," said Diana Torres, a fellow freshman.

"Our main focus should be the people in East Palo Alto who have been here for years and are struggling so much," senior Darian Huiltron-Riverra said.

After each speech, Moore cross-examined the students, who found themselves having to construct a response on the spot.

Following the debate, Moore deconstructed their ideas, giving the students a glimpse of the importance of taking notes to track their opponents' points. Telling a judge how he or she should think about an issue could work out in their favor, he added.

"Think about it like a game where you go point for point. ... That's how you win rounds."

Thomas, now in his third year with the debate league, said he has tried to get more students interested in the program, but many say they don't consider the activity the "coolest" thing to do.

"Some of my peers say, 'Why are you doing this? This is for white people,'" said Thomas, who is African American. "And I have to remind them (that) I can learn it too."

He said he has seen more people of color learn debate recently with a goal of using their public speaking skills in the real world.

"Debate is for everybody ... no matter who you are, no matter what you are," he said.

Now considered an experienced debater, Thomas, who joined the league with a strong interest in politics, has guided and related to other students who are working through their struggles as novice debaters.

"Don't worry; just work hard," he's told his younger peers. "Do what you need to do. Learn the negative and positive about the situation or topic and you'll be alright."

Apply for a Holiday Fund Grant

Nonprofits serving children and families may apply for funds by downloading our Grant Application Guidelines and Grant Application Form. Application deadline: 11:59 p.m. on Friday, January 13, 2023.

Make a donation
2022 Recipient Agency

49ers Academy$10,000

AbilityPath$10,000

Able Works$10,000

Ada's Cafe$25,000

Adolescent Counseling Services$7,500

Art in Action$10,000

Bay Area Friendship Circle$5,000

Beyond Barriers Athletic Foundation$5,000

Big Brothers Big Sisters
of the Bay Area
$10,000

Blossom Birth & Family$5,000

Canopy$5,000

CASA of San Mateo County$5,000

Children's Health Council$10,000

Christmas Bureau of Palo Alto$5,000

Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto$10,000

Counseling and Support Services for Youth - CASSY$15,000

DreamCatchers$15,000

East Palo Alto Academy Foundation$10,000

East Palo Alto Charter School$5,000

East Palo Alto Kids Foundation$15,000

East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring$15,000

East Palo Alto YMCA$10,000

Eastside College
Preparatory School
$7,500

EPACENTER$10,000

Family Connections$7,500

Fit Kids Foundation$5,000

Foundation for a
College Education
$10,000

Fresh Approach$10,000

Friends for Youth$5,000

Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo$10,000

Heart and Home Collaborative$10,000

Hope Horizon East Palo Alto$7,500

Jasper Ridge Farm$5,000

Kara$15,000

Learning Home Volunteers$10,000

Live In Peace$10,000

Magical Bridge Foundation$10,000

Mannakin Theater & Dance$5,000

Marine Science Institute$5,000

Midpen Media Center$7,500

Music in the Schools Foundation$8,000

My New Red Shoes$5,000

New Voices for Youth$5,000

Pacific Art League of Palo Alto$12,000

Palo Alto Art Center Foundation$10,000

Palo Alto Community Child Care $30,000

Palo Alto Players$10,000

Peer Point$20,000

Peninsula Bridge$10,000

Peninsula College Fund$10,000

Peninsula Healthcare Connection$10,000

Peninsula Volunteers$15,000

Peninsula Youth Theatre$5,000

Pursuit of Excellence Scholarship Foundation$20,000

Ravenswood Classroom Partners$20,000

Ravenswood Education Foundation$10,000

Reading Partners
Silicon Valley
$10,000

ReadySetExcel$5,000

Rebuilding Together Peninsula$7,500

Resource Area for
Teaching (RAFT)
$5,000

Rich May Foundation$5,000

Rise Together Education$10,000

Ronald McDonald House$5,000

Rosalie Rendu Center$5,000

Sager Family Farm$5,000

Silicon Valley
Urban Debate League
$7,500

St. Elizabeth Seton School$10,000

TheatreWorks$5,000

UNAFF (United Nations Association Film Festival)$10,000

WeHOPE$15,000

WomenSV$7,500

Youth Community Service$25,000

Child Care Grants

All Five$10,000

Covenant Children's Center$10,000

Creative Montessori
Learning Center
$10,000

Grace Lutheran Preschool$10,000

Palo Alto Friends Nursery School$10,000

Parents Nursery School$10,000


As of December 7th, 165 donors have contributed $145,397 to the Holiday Fund.
* indicates amount withheld at donor's request

24 Anonymous7,075
Eileen & Rick Brooks1,000
Maureen O'Connor150
Martha Shirk1,200
Jennifer DiBrienza & Jesse Dorogusker1,000
Diane and Brandy Sikic*
Alicia Newman100
Dorsey & Katherine Bass300
Edie Kirkwood1,000
Micri & Bob Cardelli*
George & Betsy Young*
Diana Diamond1,000
Brigid Barton 2,000
Korol Family250
Lawrence R. Yang & Jennifer W. Kuan10,000
Anthony & Susan Wood25,000
Lynn and Andrew Newman*
Katherine Bryant100
Barbara Riper*
Sally & Craig Nordlund500
Carolyn Caddes*
Kroymann Family250
Marian Adams100
Roy & Carol Blitzer*
Elaine Hah1,500
Retired*
Julie & Dan Lythcott-Haims250
Tess & Eric Byler150
Denise and Jeff Simons*
Keith and Linda Clarke*
Harriet Benson10,000
Arthur Keller250
Cynthia Costell100
George & Betsy Bechtel200
Ellen M. Lillington200
Tom & Nancy Fiene200
Tom & Patricia Sanders*
Amado & Deborah Padilla250
Margo Sensenbrenner*
Merele McClure250
Joanne Koltnow400
Christina Kenrick1,000
Richard Johnsson5,000
Xiaofan Lin100
Bonnie and Bryan Street*
Thomas Rindfleisch*
Jody Maxmin*
Diane and Joe Rolfe*
Diane Finkelstein250
Linda & Steve Boxer*
David & Betsy Fryberger400
Jan Aarts*
Judith Appleby300
Donald Barr150
Charles & Barbara Stevens*
Edward Kanazawa300
Karen A. Latchford*
Kingsley Jack250
Richard Zuanich150
Patti Yanklowitz and Mark Krasnow100
Denise Savoie and Darrell Duffie*
Elizabeth Salzer & Richard Baumbartner*
Marcia & Michael Katz200
Scott and Jan Kilner500
Dorothy Saxe100
Kieschnick family1,000
Barbara Klein*
Dorothy Deringer200
Art and Peggy Stauffer500
Ed & Linda DeMeo500
Penny & Greg Gallo500
Scottie Zimmerman100
Fran Codispoti250
Ted & Ginny Chu*
The Dong Family200
Bill Reller*
Harry E & Susan B Hartzell100
Ann Burrell & Charles Smith*
Janis Ulevich*
Theradep Technologies500
Jack and Susan Thomas*
Julie and Jon Jerome*
Andrea B. Smith100
Leif and Sharon Erickson500
The Havern Family5,000
Gwen Luce and Family*
Bruce Campbell*
Freddy & Jan Gabus250
Richard & Pat Douglas50
Susan & Doug Woodman150
Donald Price*
Judy Ousterhout*
Judy Kramer*
Kingston Duffie & Elizabeth Schwerer500
Roger & Joan Warnke300
Jerry & Bobbie Wagger*
John Keller100
Mahlon & Carol Hubenthal*
Margaret Forsyth and Glenn Rennels*
Charlotte Johansen200
Leo & Marlys Keoshian250
Donna Silverberg100
Paul & Jane Millman250
In Memory Of

Walter Dean*
Er-Ying and Y.C. Yen250
Jack Sutorius750
Michele Wilson*
Bob Donald350
Leonard Ware*
Robert Spinrad100
August King*
Bob Simoni500
David W. Mitchell*
Paul Seaver*
Gerald Berner300
Ian Halliday250
Ray Bacchetti300
Marie and Don Snow200
Andre Jones *
Jim and Dottie Mellberg*
Ruth & Chet Johnson*
David Sager100
Ted Linden200
Lily & Philip Gottheiner150
Chet Brown*
Phil Zschokke200
Nellie Perna Bartello100
Bob Donald*
Steven T. Ross100
In Honor Of

Marilyn Sutorius750
Darla Tupper3,922
Leo & Sylvia Breidenbach and Thomas & Louise Phinney1,000
Polly Caddes*
Joe Simitian*
Gabby Perez & Logan Marsh250
Dr Ron Radzilowski*
Businesses & Organizations

Angelo Family Foundation 5,000
Palo Alto Business Park*
Hearts & Minds Activity Center75
Alta Mesa Cemetery & Funeral Home2,500
Peery Foundation10,000
Arrillaga Foundation10,000

Past Holiday Fund Grant Recipients

2018-2019 | 2017-2018 | 2016-2017 | 2015-2016 | 2014-2015 | 2013-2014 | 2012-2013 | 2011-2012 | 2010-2011 | 2009-2010 | 2008-2009 | 2007-2008 | 2006-2007 | 2005-2006 | 2004-2005 | 2003-2004 | 2002-2003 | 2001-2002 | 2000-2001 | 1999-2000