Smriti Gautam has never been to a block party in her University South neighborhood because there hasn't been one. There's been no ice cream social or movie night or neighborhood picnic in the park, she said. But Gautam plans to change all that.
She and a friend, Ariana Tindall, hope to start a tradition for their neighborhood a potluck block party before the summer ends. There will be kids' activities and something interactive for parents to do. And by event's end, she hopes to know more neighbors, the Palo Alto High School senior said.
"I know there are a lot of kids in my neighborhood, but I really didn't associate myself with my neighborhood," she added.
Gautam is part of Caring Neighborhoods, a Project Safety Net initiative to bring residents together so kids feel valued and can talk to their neighbors when in need. The teens go to events and take pictures, which will be posted on the Project Safety Net website.
Caring Neighborhoods was started by Terry Godfrey, former Palo Alto Partners in Education (PiE) president and a candidate this fall for the Board of Education.
Twelve Palo Alto and Gunn high school students launched the Caring Neighborhoods Challenge, which encourages residents to host block parties, barbecues and other events between now and Labor Day.
The neighborhood with the intergenerational event that attracts the biggest crowd will help cut the ribbon at the new Mitchell Park Library opening with Palo Alto Mayor Nancy Shepherd, Gautam said.
The teens have been getting the word out. They passed out pamphlets at the Chili Cookoff in July and are making banners to display around town. Each Wednesday, they discuss their next strategy or make posters or other informational materials, she said.
Gautam has learned the value of building community with multiple generations as a volunteer at the Lytton Gardens senior residences.
"I got into it, and they were so cute and sweet," she said of the Lytton seniors. "I'm really excited to go there. They're always cooped up inside. We play bingo, and I try to take as many of them outside as I can."
Gautam also attended an intercultural party put on by the Midtown Residents Association this spring, and it made her want to be part of something bigger in her own neighborhood, she said.
"The neighbors seemed to know each other for a long time, and there were a lot of people talking," she said.
Residents don't have to go far out of their way, she said.
"We're not looking for extravagant, exquisite hosting. It could just be getting neighbors together for snacks and drinks," she said.
But the events should be intergenerational.
"Young kids tend to stay away from the older generation, but I feel like we should close the gap a little bit," she said.
To get a feel for the kinds of creative community building that can be accomplished, the teens have been attending, photographing and videotaping neighborhood gatherings.
"I feel like this can help so that kids feel like they are not alone," Gautam said.
More information about the Caring Neighborhoods Challenge is at devassetspaloalto.org.