Gunn High School sophomore Xander Burch has one word to describe Camp Everytown: emotional.
And it is. The four-day retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains, organized by Bay Area nonprofit Silicon Valley FACES, is designed to get high school students out of their comfort zones and talking about difficult topics: racism, gender stereotypes, mental illness, sexual orientation and bullying.
Students say it's eye-opening. Organizers describe the camp as life-changing. The ultimate goal of Camp Everytown is to inspire a desire in students to go back to their schools or communities and create change, whether it be through a club or initiative or newly discovered empathy for their peers.
But Camp Everytown is not available to all students those who attend are typically recommended by teachers or staff for either displaying leadership skills or, conversely, being in need of exposure to these kind of hard conversations.
A longtime partnership with Gunn High School, supported this year by the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, has resulted in Silicon Valley FACES bringing a condensed version of Camp Everytown to the school, called Evening in Everytown.
So on a recent Friday night, about 94 Gunn students from all grades, plus facilitators, staff members (including principal Denise Herrmann) and alumni, gathered in the Gunn library. At one point, the students were split in two groups, with each standing on one side of the library. They were asked a series of revealing questions: Have you ever felt bad about your grade because somebody got a better grade than you? Have you ever been discriminated against because of your race? Do you have a mental illness that you feel like you can't talk about? And if the answer was "yes," they were asked to step to the middle of the room. (Another one: Step to the middle if you've cut class to study for another class.)
"When you see a person that you know (step forward) you had no idea they were facing this," junior Sara Zhang said. "It just reminds people ... to be a little nicer to everybody, because you really don't know how much pain or how much struggle they're going through."
Zhang also attended Camp Everytown in October. She said she appreciated it as a space outside of school where topics that normally feel like social taboos were discussed openly. And when she came back to school after camp, she had a whole new group of familiar faces.
"Most of us didn't know each other at all (before camp)," she said. "Now, when we see each other, it's like seeing an old friend."
Burch, a Colorado transplant new to Gunn this year, said he felt the same value in meeting new people. Burch and others who attended camp dubbed "Camp Delegates" also served as facilitators at Evening in Everytown, leading small group discussions at various points throughout the night. (Silicon Valley FACES staff trained them to do so; the nonprofit's staff helps Gunn throughout the year, providing tailored leadership and empathy training to interested students and faculty.)
Students at the evening event also heard from a panel of five recent Gunn graduates, who were asked to reflect on their time in high school.
Julia Maggioncalda, a Stanford University sophomore who graduated from Gunn in 2012, spoke openly about the devastating impact of her pursuit of perfection during those four years, her decision to take a gap year after graduating and lessons she's learned since leaving Gunn. (She gave a similar baccalaureate speech her senior year, which is now shown to all incoming Gunn freshmen. View it here.)
"I ended up falling into severe depression my senior year," she told the Weekly, recounting her Evening at Everytown speech. The varsity athlete and straight-A student said her classmates thought she was missing school to celebrate getting into Stanford early, when really, she was lying "on the floor incapacitated."
She, like Zhang, said the main lesson she's learned since high school is that what's going on for their peers can't necessarily be seen from the outside.
"From the start to the finish of my time at Gunn, I learned that lives of others are not always as they seem," Maggioncalda said. "Although you can't go out of your way to help every individual person overcome whatever they're going through and there's no way to know what everyone's going through, the least you can do is be kind, whether that be a smile or a wave or to pick up someone's pencil.
"Everyone's going through stuff, even if they seem like they're perfect and have everything together," she said.
She told the current high schoolers her biggest regret from that time in her life: "Getting too caught up in my future, too caught up in the stress of Gunn and living in the past or future and never quite in the present."
After Maggioncalda finished speaking that Friday night, a female student approached her and said, "I've been depressed for so long. What's one thing I can do to get better?"
Maggioncalda advised the student to seek help, talk to someone and not isolate herself from her friends. And then she asked for the microphone, and, hoping to dispel the strong stigma about seeking help for mental health, told the crowd that she's been seeing a therapist since her senior year of high school.
"And he has made a world's difference for me and my mental health," she said of her therapist.
Another student panelist, 2011 graduate Jennie Robinson, spoke that Friday night about self-love and learning and growing through all experiences both good and bad.
"I was so happy to learn that this was an event," she told the Weekly. "I think Gunn needs to make drastic changes in the way they address how massive academic pressure affects students' mental health, and this was a step in the right direction."
Phillip Handy, Silicon Valley FACES' associate director of education, said the panelists' speeches were the highlight of Evening in Everytown.
"You should have seen the kids' faces in the audience," he said. "I think that the students really did connect with them and start to see that, yeah, this is ... not only about how to navigate their current experience at Gunn, but thinking about the future and how often times, people do get depressed when they're thinking about the future. It can seem like it's just going to be nothing but stress. And they were letting them know that 'Yes, there will be plenty of stress, but there are going to be plenty of other things, too, that are so enjoyable and worthwhile.'"
Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund page here.