For high school students Rebecca Goldgof and Sandie Luo, community service is a way of life.
The two are co-presidents of the service club at Gunn High School, which is organized by Youth Community Service (YCS), an organization that offers students ways to get involved in the community.
Whether students are interested in helping underprivileged children, providing service at animal shelters or lending a hand to the homeless, the club has a project for everyone, Goldgof said.
"I think one of the best things about the club is its versatility," she said. "The club has so many different events and different opportunities. There's a way for everyone to get involved, which is really great to see."
Service clubs at eight Palo Alto middle and high schools are one of several YCS programs that benefited from a $20,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund this year. The grant also supported YCS' Summer of Service camp scholarships, community-wide service days and life-skills classes for at-risk youth.
The organization was created nearly 25 years ago by Palo Alto and East Palo Alto cities and their school districts Palo Alto Unified and Ravenswood City to bring members of both communities closer together by means of volunteering. Since then, the organization has committed to providing services and opportunities for youth on both sides of U.S. Highway 101 and doing so in a meaningful way.
"Service is for everyone," said Youth Community Service Executive Director Leif Erickson, who believes volunteering is the best way to help youth realize their worth.
Drawing from the organization's original purpose of bringing communities together, YCS hosts a number of service days throughout the year for youth from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto as well as Menlo Park to join forces and improve their community.
The Summer of Service camp, which runs two-week sessions throughout the summer, allows middle school children to choose an area of interest, such as the environment or feeding the hungry, and volunteer in that field each day. They work in small teams to better encourage cross-community bonding. Scholarships are available to ensure that students from low-income households can participate in the camp.
"The students get pretty knowledgeable about these issues, and they also get very confident about what an 11-year-old can do to make an impact," Erickson said, adding that the organization's purpose is to show program participants that they can make a difference.
At-risk youth are referred to YCS, which provides an after-school program for middle school students and a for-credit class at high schools in the East Palo Alto and Menlo Park school districts. Students are encouraged to first identify their personal values. Through the life-skills curriculum, they are grounded in a positive view of themselves and then taught to give back to their community.
"Principals love the program because we are very successful in turning these kids around," Erickson said.
The organization currently provides programs to at-risk and low-achieving students, but Erickson said he wants to create a similar program for high achievers as a means of counterbalancing stresses students face in school.
Students like Luo have found solace in performing community service.
"I joined as a freshman just wanting to try something new," Luo said. "I realized that Gunn is such a stressful place, and community service really gives me the opportunity to take a step back and realize that everything is not just about me. There is a whole community out there to experience."
Youth Community Service has involved more than 19,000 young people in volunteering opportunities and helped provide more than 115,000 hours of service to more than 40 community groups. The organization continues to grow and extend its programs, but it continues to operate under the philosophy that every young person with a place for service in his or her heart has a purposeful future to look forward to, Erickson said.
Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund page here.