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VIDEO: 31st annual Palo Alto Tall Tree awards

Highlights from the 2010 Palo Alto Tall Tree awards

Palo Alto's 2010 Tall Tree awards recognized suicide-prevention and mental health advocates Victor and Mary Ojakian; local developer and Junior Museum and Zoo board member Roxy Rapp; transitional-employment program Downtown Streets Team; and longtime Palo Alto business Stern Mortgage Company.

The awards, co-sponsored by the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and the Palo Alto Weekly, honor community service and exceptional civic contributions in four categories: citizen/volunteer, business person, nonprofit and business.

As outstanding volunteer/citizens, Victor and Mary Ojakian have addressed mental health issues and suicide prevention. Their work is "the essence of public service," according to Palo Alto City Council member Gail Price.

Following the suicide of their son Adam in 2004, the Ojakians have been involved with numerous health, education and community committees working to raise awareness of mental health issues in schools and throughout communities and reform mental health services. Those groups include the Palo Alto Unified School District, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and many others. Most recently, Vic -- a former Palo Alto mayor -- has teamed up with County Supervisor Liz Kniss to chair a countywide Suicide Prevention Advisory Committee.

"I have no doubt that hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from their activist mental health work," Price wrote in her letter of nomination.

Roxy Rapp, this year's business-professional honoree, has demonstrated "infinite love of Palo Alto," according to nominator Barbara Gross, general manager of the Garden Court Hotel in downtown Palo Alto.

Rapp began his career as a fashion retailer. Then, as a real-estate developer, he became "responsible for many of the outstanding buildings and businesses" of downtown Palo Alto, Gross wrote. His community involvement, however, has been his most significant contribution, according to his supporters.

Rapp has served on the board of the Junior Museum and Zoo, Menlo College, the Chamber of Commerce, Canopy and the Museum of American Heritage. He was also a leader in the recent renovation of Lytton Plaza.

Rapp "has the unusual capacity to be personally generous with his time as well as with his means," Gross wrote.

Outstanding nonprofit Downtown Streets Team, which employs homeless people to keep downtown streets clean, is "truly extraordinary," Councilman Sid Espinosa wrote.

The organization is "addressing a critical Palo Alto need in a smart and effective manner," he said.

Nominators said the program's participants, each of whom is assigned a certain area of downtown to help maintain, are empowered by their duties as well as taught valuable work habits. Meanwhile, the downtown community benefits from increased neighborhood cleanliness. Harvard University even named the organization one of the "Top 50 Government Innovations" in 2009.

"This is a very effective and innovative program that makes an enormous contribution to the community," Chamber of Commerce President Paula Sandas said.

Business honoree Stern Mortgage has been headquartered in Palo Alto for 30 years. Founder Rick Stern "exemplifies the community-minded business ethic that serves to enhance the richness of Palo Alto," Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie wrote in his nominating letter.

Stern, along with partners Todd Flesner and Julie Fukuhara, has contributed many hours of local volunteer work, including with the Kiwanis, Rotary Club, YMCA, Rebuilding Together, the Junior League and the Chamber of Commerce, and the company has been named as one of the best of its kind by industry experts.

"The model of truly serving the needs of their clients while giving back to the community has made it possible for Stern Mortgage Company to positively impact the lives of thousands of people in our town," nominator and former employee Tom Fehrenbach wrote.

The 2010 Tall Tree awards ceremony was held Thursday (April 29) at 6 p.m. at the Crowne Cabana Hotel in Palo Alto. The event drew a host of notable Palo Alto figures including folk singer Joan Baez, State Senator Joe Simitian, State Assemblyman Ira Ruskin and Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt.

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