Holiday Spirit

Second-year Foothill College student Carmen Thomas works at Cooley Landing Education Center in East Palo Alto on Nov. 23, 2020. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Posted November 27, 2020

With Live In Peace, at-risk students are given something they didn't think they had: choice
Nonprofit's Gap-Year Project helps students set and achieve their next life goals

by Lloyd Lee

Two years ago, Carmen Thomas had a choice: Did she want to stay on board with Facebook, where she'd been interning to take a full-time job offer as a recruiting coordinator, or did she want to go to college?

Thomas was then only a recent high school graduate, barely 19, who'd already interned at one of the most valuable companies in the world through Year Up, a nonprofit accelerated job training program. It's a conundrum not many recent high school graduates face — certainly not one Thomas imagined she'd have when she was in 10th grade, missing classes and watching her grades in free fall.

That is, until she joined East Palo Alto's youth nonprofit Live In Peace and later participated in one of their newer programs called the Gap-Year Project.

"I didn't really care about school like that," Thomas said. "Then I started coming to Live In Peace and they helped me graduate."

The Gap-Year Project is not necessarily a job or college pipeline. On Live In Peace's website, it's intentionally first described in vague terms: "a two-year program for students to move forward together." That's because "forward" can mean a lot of things for the people who join the program, whether it's outlining a career plan, applying for college, getting a driver's license, or opening up their first bank account.

Most of the students turning to the Gap-Year Project are those like Thomas, who at one point were at-risk of not getting a high school diploma and, having stuck it out, need to decide what to do next.

"Oftentimes, they've put all of their effort into just graduating high school," Laura Gross, development manager at Live In Peace, said. "So when they graduate, they're not sure what their next steps are, whether that's college, community college, trade school, etc."

Melvishia Gaines, program coordinator and co-founder of the Gap-Year Project, who's mentored Thomas for several years, described it as a way to remind struggling or underserved students that they too have the luxury of choice.

"Carmen's aspirations now are very different," Gaines said. "She can imagine what she can be instead of just thinking, 'Oh, I need a job here NOW to take care of something.' She can figure out what it is she's passionate about."

The Gap-Year Project is the two-year-old brainchild of Gaines and Heather Starnes-Logwood, Live In Peace's executive director. Starnes-Logwood always envisioned a program to help students create and stick to a path in community college. For Gaines, she wanted something more broadly focused on life skills.

"I'm thinking about, how do they survive, period," she said.

Growing up in East Palo Alto and working in various educational settings in her city, Gaines is familiar with how quickly some people quit school due to the lack of basic resources.

"I know so many students who drop out just because they don't have internet (access)," she said.

Thus, the holistic approach of the Gap-Year Project was born. While they formulate their future plans during the two-year program, participating students are offered financial and career mentors, free tutoring services, a quiet space with internet connection, and even help applying for health insurance or a driver's license test. (Last Friday, Gaines just chaperoned a couple students to the DMV.)

Some like Thomas can also choose to participate in the Year Up program, during which time the Gap-Year Project provides weekly stipends. This year, Palo Alto Weekly's annual Holiday Fund granted $5,000 to Live In Peace to help support students in the program.

Others can even get below-market rate housing under the condition they keep up their grades or remain on track with their goals. Because of Live in Peace's housing program, through which the nonprofit subsidizes a tenant's rent, Thomas was able to move out of her mom's often chaotic house of seven children into a one-bedroom apartment for herself, paying just $1,200 for rent.

In addition to receiving those resources, the 20 to 25 students in each cohort of the program quickly start to look at Live In Peace as a second or only family to which they can turn.

"We're able to become the family and help provide as we partner with the student's parents or as we become the parents to help them begin to 'adult,'" Gaines said.

If the country weren't still grappling with a pandemic, Gap-Year Project students would meet every week, in-person, in larger group sessions to hang out and give life updates.

"When we have meetings, we just talk about what's going on: How are you feeling? How's family life? What's stressing you out?" Gaines said.

For Thomas, it wasn't long before she started to address Gaines as "auntie" and Eugene Jackson, a community liaison for Live In Peace, as "pops."

These days, larger meetings are held less frequently and over Zoom. But students still have access to one of five in-person facilities, like the Cooley Landing Education Center, called "pods." Students are assigned to one pod in order to avoid mixing of too many households and have access to internet hotspots and a quiet space to work.

Gaines feels fortunate to see that her budget for the project hasn't shrunk so far during the pandemic. But the project could always use more funding to expand its resources, Gaines said. With more funding, she would love to see Live In Peace expand its student housing programs and get a bigger budget to invest in guest speakers, who provide lessons on things like financial literacy.

"It's hard to be the life coach and the person who's doing the checks and balances for your budget," she said.

Nowadays, Thomas visits Cooley Landing to get outside her apartment, see Gaines and do her work. Last Friday afternoon, she was getting a head start on her Federal Student Aid application, an annual ritual all rising-college and college students go through with resigned sighs.

At Facebook, Gaines could have landed a position that offered a higher pay stub than any of her previous jobs at Taco Bell and other stores in the Ravenswood Shopping Center, which she started working at when she was 16. ("I've worked in every single one of those stores there, let me tell you," she laughs.)

But at her age, now 21, Thomas decided there was still a lot more she wanted to learn and enrolled at Foothill College last year. She's currently studying kinesiology and on track to transfer next year to San Jose State University.

After that, she's not entirely sure what she'll do next. Maybe she'll become a personal trainer or a physical therapist.

That's still a choice she gets to decide.

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


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

Blossom Birth & Family$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


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


Family Connections$7,500

Fit Kids Foundation$5,000

Foundation for a
College Education

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


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


Rebuilding Together Peninsula$7,500

Resource Area for
Teaching (RAFT)

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

St. Elizabeth Seton School$10,000


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



Youth Community Service$25,000

Child Care Grants

All Five$10,000

Covenant Children's Center$10,000

Creative Montessori
Learning Center

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
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