An effort to thank the security guards who stand watch at several Palo Alto train crossings started as a hopeful Facebook post and ended in a group of community members raising almost $4,000 in less than a week.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, mother of two Palo Alto students and former longtime Stanford University dean of freshmen, felt the pull to do something to express her gratitude while driving by a guard on a rainy evening last week.
"It was dark, cold and raining and there this man stood under an umbrella," she remembered. "I just felt this emotion rise in my chest. I cranked down my window and shouted, 'Thanks,' but by the time I got to the end of the word, my voice was already cracking. In some ways, the raw humanity of the entire situation was on display somehow. I just thought, 'Here I am in my car, warm and dry, making my way across these train tracks,' and I just wanted to do something."
So she took to Facebook, as she often does to share her opinion and connect with others on current events and important issues, and put forth the idea of collecting money to purchase gift cards for the 11 guards, who in shifts stand seven days a week at several Palo Alto train crossings.
The guards are employed by a private security firm and contracted through the Palo Alto Police Department as part of Track Watch, which was created after several suicides in 2009 and 2010. The guards' presence was increased this year after two young men died in October and November.
Lythcott-Haims posted her query on Facebook shortly before dinner on Monday, Dec. 15, asking people to spread the word to other networks and communities and it did so quickly. Before she went to bed, she had received $800. When she woke up Tuesday morning, the total had jumped to $1,200. People started sending her money electronically on PayPal, VenMo and Square as well as cards with checks in the mail. She planned to use the money to purchase Visa gift cards for the guards, leaving the use of the money up to them, and wanted to be able to give the gifts by this Monday, Dec. 22, before the holidays.
Lythcott-Haims talked to the police department and the security firm to let them know her plans and make sure it was appropriate, she said.
On Sunday evening, she had raised $3,752 just short of being able to give each guard a $350 gift card. Lythcott-Haims reached out to a woman who, along with her initial donation of $100, had told Lythcott-Haims, "Let me know if you need help topping it off." Lythcott-Haims did, and the woman did.
Fast forward through a small fiasco over buying that many Visa gift cards in one sitting, and Lythcott-Haims had a $350 gift card to Target, along with a letter of thanks, for each guard. Donations from 74 people ranged from $5 to one woman, whom Lythcott-Haims didn't know before this, who gave $600. One person contributed packs of hand warmers.
"I think we all want to be out there," Lythcott-Haims said. "We all want to be out there preventing any child, anyone from deciding that that's the only option. Practically speaking, we can't all be out there, and thankfully the police department has hired a set of people to do this work, but I think we feel a level of indebtedness to them that can never be repaid."
Lythcott-Haims' initial Facebook Dec. 15 post garnered more than 250 likes and 65 comments and has been shared more than 20 times.
"This was a small way in which people could come together and join forces and feel that we're doing something, we're acknowledging a problem and expressing gratitude for one element of the solution, which is not to say this is the only solution," she said. "I think many of us know how important it is to express gratitude for the efforts made around us."
Lythcott-Haims returned to Facebook on Monday to announce that she would be presenting the gifts that afternoon to the lead Track Watch guard, Derrick, who asked his last name not be published. Ten people including Lythcott-Haims' 75-year-old mother and two former Stanford students showed up.
"That was lovely," Derrick told the Weekly Tuesday. "I know everybody appreciated that. You can't beat that. Normally, you would see somebody get a $20 or $50 gift, but when you (give) that amount -- that will definitely make everybody stand on their toes. We appreciate it to the fullest, too."
Derrick and other guards said people will often bring them coffee or food, but this gift went above and beyond.
Stanley Cortez said he thought Derrick was joking when he said a $350 gift card would be waiting for him at work this week.
"It's a good feeling, you know what I mean?" Cortez said.