Holiday Spirit

Zulema Garibo is among the nearly 700 students who have been awarded a college grant from the nonprofit Pursuit of Excellence since Palo Altans Richard and Marjorie Smallwood launched the program in 1985. Courtesy Carol Mullin.

Posted November 26, 2021

Pursuit of Excellence offers college grants, mentors to teens in need | Holiday Fund
Palo Alto nonprofit provides a pathway to success

by Linda Taaffe / Palo Alto Weekly

The likelihood of Zulema Garibo going to college seemed pretty slim: English was not her native language. No one in her family had ever attended college. And her status as an undocumented immigrant meant she was ineligible for federal student aid and other scholarships.

"I always had that dream of being able to graduate college. My parents put it in our heads that we came to this country to have a better life," said Garibo, who moved to the Midpeninsula with her parents and two siblings from Mexico when she was 6 years old.

Despite the roadblocks, Garibo refused to give up on her dream. When high school teachers told her advanced English classes would be too challenging for her, she enrolled in advanced science and math classes and showed them she could succeed. She stayed in the classroom during lunch and after school to hone her language skills and did whatever she thought needed to be done to improve her chances of being accepted to college.

But even with a 4.1 GPA, she said college seemed as if it would be an impossibility if she couldn't afford the tuition.

During her senior year at Woodside High School, Garibo learned about Pursuit of Excellence , a Palo Alto nonprofit that awards scholarships to financially needy students from Peninsula high schools. She jumped at the chance to apply and was able to enroll at the University of California, Santa Barbara, right out of high school. Through the program, Garibo received $30,000 in grant money distributed over the years she was an undergraduate student to help defray annual tuition costs.

Garibo said the scholarship program, which also provides mentoring and internship opportunities, changed her life.

"Pursuit of Excellence definitely gave me the motivation and extra support that I needed. They were there for me emotionally and financially the entire time," Garibo, now 25, said during a telephone interview in mid-December after wrapping up final exams at the University of Southern California, where the second-year graduate student is earning her master's degree in teaching. She plans to become an English professor.

Garibo is among the nearly 700 students who have received grants from Pursuit of Excellence (POE) since Palo Altans Richard and Marjorie Smallwood launched the program in 1985 with a single $2,000 scholarship awarded to a graduate of Sequoia High School.

Over the past 36 years, the nonprofit has distributed approximately $7 million in scholarships — all raised through private donations — to students from 14 high schools on the Midpeninsula, including Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, Eastside College Preparatory School, East Palo Alto Academy and five high schools in the Sequoia Union High School District, as well as students from its chapter in Washington, D.C.

Because POE is an all-volunteer organization, 98% of donations go directly to students, said the Smallwoods' daughter, Carol Mullin, who stepped up as president of POE in 2010.

Mullin said the program's goal is to help motivated but underserved and financially needy students, many of whom are first-generation college applicants, earn a degree by providing them between $500 and $8,000 in financial aid every school year until they graduate.

The program targets high school seniors for whom the funds can be a "tipping point" in their ability to attend school, she explained. Preference is given to students who needed to work during their high school years.

"We're not trying to jump on the bandwagon for the kid who has a 4.0, who's going to an Ivy League, who everybody knows is going to be a great success because we know we're not going to make a difference there," Mullin said. "We're looking for students who really demonstrated motivation and (financial) need, and maybe they haven't done as well in school because they're working 20 hours a week. Maybe they have a 3.2 grade point average or a 2.8 grade point average, but they would have had much better grades if they hadn't been helping support their families."

Along with financial aid, each student is provided with a mentor as well as access to enrichment opportunities, such as workshops and internships. Grant money is adjusted annually to fill any financial gaps in college expenses that a recipient might experience. Mullin said the program does not cover personal expenses, which students are expected to cover through work.

Mullin said once a student is accepted into the program, they're in it until they graduate.

"Once you're in, you're in, and we will do whatever we can to get you through college," she said. "If it takes them four years, that's amazing. If it takes them eight years, that's still fine."

Mullin said POE's graduation rate has been about 88% to 90% over the past few years, compared to the national average for lower-income, first-generation students of 21%. (These rates are based on students who have earned a bachelor's degree within six years.)

Mariela Lopez, a POE recipient from Woodside High School who graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a bachelor's degree in behavioral neuroscience last spring, said having access to a mentor is a huge benefit, especially for first-generation students trying to navigate an unfamiliar process.

"So many students are just so much more prepared. ... Their parents went to grad school and have a master's or Ph.D.s, so they know exactly what classes they need to take and why," said Lopez, who moved from Mexico to Redwood City when she was 15 years old and became the first in her family to attend college in the United States. "That's the hardest part. Nobody tells you that you need to volunteer or do any leadership positions if you want to go to grad school, or what happens if you drop out of class.

"I knew my parents weren't a resource, not because they didn't want to be but because they had no idea what goes on (in college) in the United States. So I would usually talk to my mentor, and she'd give me advice. She'd say, 'Yeah, that sounds great,' or 'Maybe don't do that.'"

Lopez is now working toward her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.

For Garibo, the support of Mullin and her mentor, Tracy, was invaluable. She said that she might not have advanced beyond her first semester of college if not for their ongoing encouragement.

Shortly after enrolling at UC Santa Barbara, Garibo said she had an unplanned pregnancy and was prepared to drop out of school.

"It was all going downhill. I felt so embarrassed to reach out to Carol and Tracy," she said.

But they're response surprised her.

"They said, 'Don't stop going to school. Just because you got pregnant doesn't mean that we're going to stop offering you help. We're here for you the entire time, whether it takes you four years, five years or six years. The goal is that you finish.'

"Those words are forever in my heart because that's what I needed to hear once again in order for me to keep pushing and going through with college."

Garibo moved back home, attended community college and then transferred to San Jose State University, where she graduated in four years. She is now paying her own way for online graduate school courses through a student loan.

Since the pandemic, Mullin said POE has made several changes to address some of the unexpected challenges that have popped up.

Within the first two weeks of the shutdown, POE used its endowment to set up an emergency COVID-19 relief fund, which included a $20,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund , to help students "with anything that was affecting them at all college wise" get through this situation, she said.

The emergency fund was used for food, rent, 28 computers and iPads for online learning and other necessities that made it easier for students to stay in school, she said.

If a student, for example, was going to have to drop out of school to help pay rent because their parents lost their jobs, then the nonprofit assisted with rent, she explained.

Mullin said POE also has partnered with companies such as LinkedIn to host online workshops, as well as Palo Alto University to provide students free mental health teleservices long term.

She said POE is currently working on expanding its internship program to provide more job placement opportunities with local companies.

Mullin said despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic last year, POE didn't see a single student drop out of the program. The organization accepted 36 students and saw another 36 students graduate, including 26 who had earned their degrees within four years, she said.

"I feel like our students are super resilient. ... They just keep going. (It's) impressive," Mullin said.

Make a donation
2023 Recipient Agency
Able Works$10,000


Ada's Cafe$25,000

Adolescent Counseling Services$7,500

Art in Action$10,000

Art of Yoga Project$5,000

Aspire East Palo Alto
Charter School

Bay Area Friendship Circle$5,000

Beyond Barriers
Athletic Foundation

Big Brothers Big Sisters
of the Bay Area

Blossom Birth and Family$5,000


CASA of San Mateo County$5,000

Christmas Bureau of Palo Alto$7,500

Community Legal Services
in East Palo Alto

Counseling and Support
Services for Youth (CASSY)

Downtown Streets Team$15,000


East Palo Alto Academy

East Palo Alto Kids Foundation$15,000

East Palo Alto Razorhawks
Rugby Football Club

Eastside College
Preparatory School

Ecumenical Hunger

Environmental Volunteers $7,500


EPATT (East Palo Alto
Tennis and Tutoring)

Family Connections$7,500

Fit Kids Foundation$5,000

Foundation for a
College Education


Fresh Lifelines for Youth$5,000

Friends for Youth$5,000

Friends of the Palo Alto
Junior Museum & Zoo

Heart and Home Collaborative$10,000

Hidden Villa$10,000

Hope Horizon East Palo Alto$7,500

Jasper Ridge Farm$5,000


Lauren's House 4 Positive

Learning Home Volunteers$10,000

Mannakin Theater & Dance$5,000

Music in the Schools Foundation$7,500

My New Red Shoes$5,000

Nuestra Casa de East Palo Alto$10,000

Palo Alto Art Center Foundation$10,000

Palo Alto Community
Child Care (PACCC)

Palo Alto Players$10,000

Peninsula Bridge$10,000

Peninsula College Fund$10,000

Peninsula Healthcare Connection $10,000

Peninsula Volunteers$15,000

Pursuit of Excellence
Scholarship Foundation

Ravenswood Classroom Partners$20,000

Ravenswood Education

Rebuilding Together


Rich May Foundation$5,000

Riekes Center$5,000

Rise Together Education$15,000

Rosalie Rendu Center$5,000

Sager Family Farm$5,000

Science is Elementary$5,000

Silicon Valley Urban
Debate League

StreetCode Academy$10,000

The Circuit EPA$5,000

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley$5,000

UNAFF (United Nations Association
Film Festival)

Vista Center for the Blind
and Visually Impaired



Youth Community Service $25,000

Child Care Grants


All Five$10,000

Children's Center of the
Stanford Community

Children's Preschool Center$5,000

Covenant Children's Center$10,000

Grace Lutheran Preschool$10,000

Palo Alto Community
Child Care (PACCC)

Palo Alto Friends Nursery School$10,000

Parents Nursery School$10,000

The Learning Center$10,000

As of October 2nd, 386 donors have contributed $744,423 to the Holiday Fund.
* indicates amount withheld at donor's request

58 Anonymous137,070
Lani Freeman & Stephen Monismith*
Veronica Tincher*
Janice & Walter Sedriks100
Rob Colley & Kate Godfrey100
Wachtel Family1,000
Dr. & Mrs. Frederic J. Kahn1,000
Kim Harvey1,000
Richard M. Glendening100
James Lobdell & Colleen Anderson500
Kay Remsen*
Delle Maxwell1,000
Kenneth Bencala & Sally O'Neil100
Nancy & Joe Huber*
Ann & Don Rothblatt500
Eric & Katie Seedman*
Mitchell Rosen50
Colleen Chihak and Joe Urbassik*
Debbie Mytels100
Elizabeth Shepard*
Roger V. Smith500
Annette Isaacson200
Julie & Dan Lythcott-Haims250
Anne & Don Vermeil*
Deborah Roth200
Page & Ferrell Sanders150
Tess & Eric Byler150
Robert & Barbara Simpson*
Denise and Jeff Simons*
Keith and Linda Clarke*
Peter Rosenthal1,000
Roderick C. McCalley100
Glenda & Gordon Hughes2,500
Nancy & Steve Levy250
Lynn and Andrew Newman*
Anthony & Susan Wood25,000
Boyce & Peggy Nute*
Maureen O'Connor150
Gwen Barry*
Martha Shirk1,200
Hoda Epstein*
Jennifer DiBrienza & Jesse Dorogusker1,000
Jack & Martha McLaughlin*
Elizabeth Lillard-Bernal75
Diane and Brandy Sikic*
Marilyn, Dale, Rick & Mei Simbeck*
Duane Bay & Barbara Noparstak150
Nancy & Jim Baer*
Werner Graf*
Alicia Newman100
Dorsey & Katherine Bass300
Jonathan MacQuitty & Laurie Hunter1,000
Bill Reller*
Edie Kirkwood1,000
Harry E & Susan B Hartzell100
Micri & Bob Cardelli*
George & Betsy Young*
Diana Diamond1,000
Ann Burrell & Charles Smith*
Brigid Barton 2,000
Charlie Williams*
Janis Ulevich*
Diane Doolittle*
Theradep Technologies500
Lee Zulman*
Jack and Susan Thomas*
Korol Family250
Bruce & Mary Beth Train500
Julie and Jon Jerome*
Lawrence R. Yang & Jennifer W. Kuan10,000
Harriet Benson10,000
Andrea B. Smith100
Arthur Keller250
Mackenzie Family Fund25,000
Leif and Sharon Erickson500
Susan D Osofsky Fund200
The Havern Family5,000
Weil Family Fund1,000
Gwen Luce and Family*
Barry L. Goldblatt150
Margaret A. Krebs578
Diane and Joe Rolfe*
Diane Finkelstein250
Linda & Steve Boxer*
David & Betsy Fryberger400
Bruce & Jane Gee250
Judith Appleby300
Chris & Anna Saccheri5,000
Donald Barr150
Charles & Barbara Stevens*
Edward Kanazawa300
Bill Johnson & Terri Lobdell2,500
Karen A. Latchford*
Dawes Family Fund500
Gavin & Tricia Christensen*
Kingsley Jack250
Braff Family Fund 500
Jean MacDonell200
The Fruchterman Family Fund250
The UMOC Charitable Fund 250,000
Nancy Wong and Robert Lipshutz200
Ellmann Family100
Vic and Norma Hesterman200
Gil and Gail Woolley200
J Platt & S Murphy*
Richard and Karen Olson500
Richard Zuanich150
Carli Scott*
Seema Ramanathan & Arun Ramchandran 250
Gwen and Wally Whittier200
Sue Elgee and Steve Eglash500
Charles Katz & Gina Signorello250
Patti Yanklowitz and Mark Krasnow100
The Dong Family200
Jody Maxmin*
Ted & Ginny Chu*
Ellen and Ron Krasnow*
Thomas Rindfleisch*
Ed & Linda Selden721
Cynthia Costell100
Romola Georgia*
Elgin & Elizabeth Lee500
Georgie Gleim1,000
Scottie Zimmerman100
Alice Schaffer Smith100
Rob and Lucinda Lenicheck250
Marcia & Michael Katz200
Christine and Bob Buss*
Alice Erber and Robert Steinberg200
Pat Burt500
Scott and Jan Kilner500
Jean Doble*
Dorothy Saxe100
Kieschnick family1,000
Bonnie Packer500
Steve & Diane Ciesinski500
Elizabeth Lee and Remington Fong*
Gerald C. & Joyce M. Barker*
Barbara & Skip Shapiro*
Dena Hill500
Barbara Klein*
Dorothy Deringer200
Art and Peggy Stauffer500
George & Betsy Bechtel200
Jonathan & Judith Rattner100
John Tang & Jean Hsia*
Joan Willingham150
Ed & Linda DeMeo500
Ellen M. Lillington200
Stuart & Carol Hansen*
Penny & Greg Gallo500
Tom & Nancy Fiene200
Tom & Patricia Sanders*
Elizabeth Salzer & Richard Baumgartner*
Fran Codispoti250
Bruce Campbell*
Amado & Deborah Padilla250
Margo Sensenbrenner*
Paul & Jane Millman250
Mahlon & Carol Hubenthal*
Deborah A. Williams & Jean Luc Laminette1,000
Jerry & Bobbie Wagger*
Merele McClure250
Kate & Marvin Feinstein1,000
Judy Kramer*
Richard & Pat Douglas50
Margaret Forsyth and Glenn Rennels*
David Backer500
Constance Crawford250
Kingston Duffie & Elizabeth Schwerer500
Jill and Brian Bicknell300
Rosalind Haber200
Freddy & Jan Gabus250
Susan & Doug Woodman150
Donald Price*
Judy Ousterhout*
John Keller100
Hyrkin Family500
Donna Silverberg100
Leo & Marlys Keoshian250
Charlotte Johansen200
Robert McMillen100
Roger & Joan Warnke300
Virginia and David Pollard125
Jim & Valerie Stinger100
Eileen & Rick Brooks1,000
Carolyn Williams & Mike Keeler*
Marian Sanders*
Katherine Bryant100
Ralph & Jackie Wheeler 300
Barbara Riper*
Sally & Craig Nordlund500
Carolyn Caddes*
Kroymann Family250
Marian Adams100
Roy & Carol Blitzer*
Elaine Hahn1,500
Joanne Koltnow400
Joan Norton*
Christina Kenrick1,000
Nina & Norman Kulgein200
Karen Winkleman Furman & Bruce Furman100
Richard Johnsson5,000
Becky & Ted Baer250
Xiaofan Lin100
Bonnie and Bryan Street*
Denise Savoie and Darrell Duffie*
Stephanie Klein & Larry Baer*
Larry Klein500
Marvin & Kate Feinstein500
Carol & Hal Louchheim400
Leonard & Mary Jo Levy150
Katherine L. Hunt400
Ajit Bhave & Manisha Kulshrestha500
Bill and Susan Beall *
Eric Keller and Janice Bohman*
Linda& Jerry Elkind*
Tony & Kathleen Hughes1,000
Leanne and Peter Giles100
Barbara Allen100
Dukovic and Frommer Charitable Fund100
John B. Florine Galen*
Diane Moore*
The Ely Family500
Scott & Sandra Pearson500
Trish Bubenik*
Eric & Linda Jensen250
Vic Befera 100
Mindy & David Sitzer*
David Kalkbrenner*
Rosalie Shepherd100
Kay Sabin*
George & Dianna Richardson250
Dr. Teresa L. Roberts1,000
In Memory Of

Margarot T. Hanks200
Florence K. Ho2,500
Carol Berkowitz*
Bill Land100
Marilyn Hansen*
Betty Meltzer50
Bertha Kalson*
Boyd Paulson Jr.3,000
Alan & Tracy *
Dr. David Zlotnick*
Paul Seaver*
Nate Rosenberg100
Kathy Morris1,500
Jeffrey David Tuerk*
Ruth & Chet Johnson*
Chet Brown*
Andre Jones *
Mary Floyd50
Mr. & Mrs. Ray Tinney200
Nellie Perna Bartello100
Mason & Ryan*
Mary & Emmet Lorey*
Ian Halliday250
David Sager100
Ruth Satterthwaite*
Marie and Don Snow200
Er-Ying and Y.C. Yen250
Beverly Aarts*
Ted Linden200
Philip M. Stein*
Jack Sutorius750
Walter Dean*
Rabbi Sidney and Marjorie Akselrad *
Gary Zweig500
Karl Knapp500
Bob Donald*
Aaron O’Neill*
Jim and Dottie Mellberg*
Shiela Mandoli*
J Norman Rossen*
Shiela Mandoli 100
Edward and Elizabeth Buurma*
Elizabeth and Edward Buurma*
Bob Markevitch100
Ray Bacchetti300
Bob Donald350
Steven T. Ross100
Leonard Ware*
Michele Wilson*
Lily & Philip Gottheiner150
Gerald Berner300
August King*
Bob Simoni500
Phil Zschokke200
Franklin Elieh*
Mary Alice Carpenter Pearson50
Robert Spinrad100
David W. Mitchell*
Samuel Benjamin Kurland300
Robert O. Jack150
Kaye H. Kelley & Richard C. Van Dusen*
Suman Patni*
Patricia A. Popp*
Duncan Matteson1,000
Maureen Martin*
Pam Grady250
In Honor Of

Dr Ron Radzilowski*
Marie Wolbach50
Leo & Sylvia Breidenbach and Thomas & Louise Phinney1,000
Darla Tupper3,922
Marilyn Sutorius750
Joe Simitian*
Lee Zulman96
Polly Caddes*
Gabby Perez & Logan Marsh250
Liz Kniss250
Georgia Lee*
Barbara Zimmer and Kevin Mayer150
Businesses & Organizations

Delores Eberhart DDS*
Angelo Family Foundation 5,000
Palo Alto Business Park*
Arrillaga Foundation10,000
Leannah Hunt Realtor250
Peery Foundation10,000
Hearts & Minds Activity Center75
Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run67,893
Alta Mesa Cemetery & Funeral Home2,500
Hewlett Foundation25,000
Packard Foundation25,000
Communications & Power Industries LLC*
McCalmont Engineering2,500

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