Holiday Spirit

Valentina Rivera sits by the fountain in Lytton Plaza in downtown Palo Alto on Dec. 21, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Posted December 24, 2022

Able Works wants to break the cycle of poverty, one youth at a time
Nonprofit helps young people through education, counseling and other support services

by Gennady Sheyner / Palo Alto Weekly

Wen Valentina Rivera moved from Cali to California six years ago, her hopes and dreams far eclipsed her resources and connections.

Growing up in Cali, a coastal city in southwest Colombia, she was accustomed to an environment of poverty and violence. Her mother, coming off a recent divorce, made the fateful decision to move to the United States in search of better opportunities for herself and her children. Arriving here at 14, Rivera spoke no English and had no support system to help her advance her dreams of going to college.

Now 20, Rivera juggles two jobs — as a tutor at Menlo-Atherton High School and as a receptionist at a Palo Alto hair salon — while working toward a sociology degree at University of California, Berkeley. In the little off time she has, she helps to take care of her four siblings, who range in age from three months to 10 years old.

"On the days I'm not in school, I'm working," Rivera said in an interview, when asked about how she manages her various duties. "I dedicate all my time to school whenever I can. I don't know how I do it, but I do it."

Like many immigrants, she faced a circuitous path toward academic and professional success. In her freshman year at Menlo-Atherton High School, Rivera made a serious push to learn English, with the goal of getting proficient enough to get into a top college. At the same time, she knew that to win admission to Berkeley, she would need to take some of the most challenging classes that the high school had to offer.

By the time she finished high school, she knew that she would have to defer her Berkeley dream. Unable to get admission initially, she opted to enroll in DeAnza College with the goal of ultimately transferring.

Rivera, who is now in her freshman year at Berkeley, said she wouldn't have met her goal if not for Able Works, a nonprofit that provides education, counseling and other support services for young people from low-income and immigrant backgrounds. Its two flagship programs, FutureProfits and AchieveAble, target high school and community college students, respectively. In the 2020-21 academic year, Able Works worked with 84 students in the Sequoia and Menlo-Atherton high schools, as well as with 17 students from local community colleges, including Foothill, DeAnza and Canada.

Able Works, which last year received a $10,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund , sees itself as much more than an educational organization. Since its inception in 2001, the nonprofit has assisted communities in East Palo Alto with everything from food insecurity to inadequate banking services. One of its early programs helped establish a credit union in East Palo Alto.

Its bread and butter, however, is working with youths to overcome systemic challenges that keep low-income families in a cycle of poverty. Through its educational programs, Able Works isn't just building skills, it is also building dreams. The nonprofit's founder, John Liotti, noted in an interview that the students in low-income families often have a hard time envisioning a path toward a college degree, successful careers and a well-paying job. Schools often engage these students through a very "cookie-cutter" approach, Liotti said, and "tracking them toward low-income jobs and lesser opportunities."

"That's why we really wanted to do a little more vision casting for the students and helping them see the horizon, especially here in Silicon Valley, where there's so much opportunity," Liotti said. "But kids from marginalized communities don't often see themselves in those opportunities or know how to access them."

The organization focuses on financial education, decision-making skills and general life skills, Liotti said. In doing so, it takes a holistic approach that looks at the "whole person," he added.

"We found there's a lot of students that are just relegated to positions that their parents were in, like construction — not bad trades per se, but we feel like certain kids have greater gifts that are often overlooked."

Children from immigrant families and low-income communities often get overlooked by existing institutions and public agencies, which tend to focus on two ends of a bell curve: those who get special attention because they get involved in the criminal-justice system and those whose affluent backgrounds give them ample access to tutoring, counseling and other services. Able Works targets those in the middle: youth who are working to climb out of poverty but have few resources to boost their efforts.

Students at junior colleges, Liotti noted, generally lack the types of communities and support systems that their counterparts in four-year colleges enjoy. They commute to school and often shoulder numerous responsibilities.

"Our students are really brave," he said. "They balance engaging in their family, helping to secure their families and also working and going to school. It's pretty amazing what some of them do."

Able Works tries to address these unique challenges by hosting weekly meetings and creating cohorts of students so that they can journey together and support one another.

The nonprofit has had to evolve over time to meet the growing challenges. During the foreclosure crisis that accompanied the 2008 crash in the housing market, Able Works did foreclosure counseling for East Palo Alto residents and helped save more than 500 homes, Liotti said. It also launched a program for single mothers, who met in cohorts to receive coaching, mental-health assistance, legal counseling and other services.

And more recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it worked with donors to raise about $250,000 in relief funds for participants in their programs — money that was used for housing and food assistance.

"When COVID hit, we had to help these families. We're not a relief organization, but these aren't just random members of our programs — these are families we care about," Liotti said.

Initially focused mainly on East Palo Alto, Able Works now has programs in the East Bay, the south bay and Central Valley. Liotti said that East Palo Alto once had plenty of access to affordable housing. That is no longer the case and families now have to move to wherever they can find housing.

"Our core is that we serve marginalized, under-resourced youth, but we had to expand it from beyond the borders of East Palo Alto and Belle Haven into the greater region because that's where the kids are living now," Liotti said.

It has continued to evolve, streamlining its curriculum and enhancing its data-gathering efforts. It is surveying students, teachers and volunteers to get feedback and refine its programs. Liotti said the organization is also paying extra attention to some of the recent trends that have reshaped the job market: the disappearance of many entry level jobs because of automation (a trend that is visible at most bank branches and McDonald's restaurants) and the acceleration of remote work, which makes self-discipline more critical than ever.

"Things are changing faster than I've ever seen them change," Liotti said. "And change could be good or bad, based on how we respond. Our goal is to remain nimble and innovative so that we're constantly changing to meet challenges that are often emerging month to month."

Rivera believes that without the counseling she had received in the AchieveAble program, she would not be going to Berkeley today. She recalled the weekly meetings, at which students shared their goals, and the field trips that Able Works organized for program participants: hiking in a park, playing miniature golf and painting. She received help in building a resume, getting professional headshots and landing a job. And she received weekly one-on-one check-ins with a counselor who made sure she was advancing in her goal.

"It wasn't just one aspect; it was school goals, financial goals, personal goals. We'd set them and check in every time to see how I was doing and what I can do better to achieve these goals," Rivera said. "The support and the love that I got was amazing."

She said that she wouldn't hesitate to recommend the nonprofit's programs to other students.

"I see many people when they go off to college, after high school they're very lost," she said. "They don't know what to do and they don't seek a person who supports them. I feel AchieveAble is a perfect place for them. Someone is constantly reaching out to you, supporting you in everything you need — financially, personally, academically."

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 September 29th, 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