Silicon Valley luminaries heard stories of parental neglect, local poverty and domestic violence Thursday night as teenage participants in the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula competed in a speaking contest.
After five teens related sometimes tearful stories of personal resilience in the face of hardship, a judging panel, which included philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, chose high school student Adriana Fernandez as the Boys & Girls Club's 2015 "Youth of the Year."
"Adriana, I was really just touched by your story and, more importantly, by your poise and your maturity and outlook on life and your ability to look at your surroundings and have this optimism," said judging panelist Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of the genomics company 23andMe. "Those are things I take away and feel inspired."
Tech CEOs and teen speech contestants alike were ushered like rock stars onto a gymnasium stage at the Boys & Girls Club's Moldaw-Zaffaroni clubhouse in East Palo Alto, part of a network that serves 1,800 K-12 low-income students in East Palo Alto, eastern Menlo Park and Redwood City.
"Silicon Valley is full of so many opportunities, energy, creativity and optimism but there are too many families who aren't participating in the greatness that is Silicon Valley," Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula Executive Director Peter Fortenbaugh told a packed audience.
"We want all of our youth to grow up and be able to access the opportunities of Silicon Valley. They need to have places they can go where they feel safe physically and emotionally safe," Fortenbaugh said. "They need a sense of belonging, places where they can explore their talents, places where they can find positive relationships with adults and positive role models.
"But they also need to succeed in school."
Fortenbaugh, a former business consultant and technology manager, has led the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula for 13 years. The organization, which reported an endowment of $5.9 million, has a 2015 operating budget of $7.8 million.
He said the club is working to deepen its relationship with local school districts to provide additional academic support to needy students, both in the school year and during the summer. For more than 20 years the club has run a school-based academic program called the Center for a New Generation, co-founded in 1993 by Condoleezza Rice and local philanthropist Susan Ford Dorsey, who was a member of Thursday's judging panel.
Fernandez, the winner of the speech contest, told of recovering from the childhood trauma of domestic violence and, along with her mother, starting a new life.
Because her mother works long hours, Fernandez is a second mother to her two younger sisters, dropping them off at school and day care before going to school herself. After school she picks them up and helps them with dinner and homework before heading to the Boys & Girls Club to start her own homework.
"The club is the only place where I have always felt safe, happy, loved and, most importantly, felt like a kid," Fernandez said. "Bits of my childhood are retrieved whenever I am here."
Fernandez, who aspires to study at UC Berkeley and to become a registered nurse, said, "Your scars tell your past but your actions demonstrate your character. We don't get to choose where we start in this world but we do have the power to choose our own journey."
Speech contestant Olivia Luna, a junior at Menlo-Atherton High School, told of the difficulties of growing up with cerebral palsy, which limits muscle movement on her right side.
"Growing up I was always teased, questioned and I had a hard time fitting in," she said. Even so, she made the freshman soccer team at M-A.
Luna recounted a painful relationship with her mother, eventually driving her to move in with her father.
"Too many kids here in East Palo Alto face hardships, growing up with unsupportive families," she said. "No child should have to live in an unstable home.
"Many complain about our youth being in the streets on a daily basis. What most do not know is that the majority of time it is to get away from their home situation."
She credited the Boys & Girls Club with giving her the confidence to take advanced placement classes and to earn a fall semester grade-point average of 3.8.
"All kids really need in order to be successful is a little help, a little hope and someone who believes in them," she said.
East Palo Alto resident Roman Loza, a junior at Everest Public High School in Redwood City, described growing up "balancing between Mexican and American cultures.
"At home I was a Mexican child, speaking Spanish with my family, but at school I struggled to learn English and to fit in as a new American," he said.
Learning English was a struggle, Loza added, but he found encouragement at the Boys & Girls Club.
Loza also credited his parents, who despite working long hours at McDonald's and in a lumberyard, always found the energy to ask him how his day was.
"It's because of their hard work and parenting that I am here today," Loza said.
Alyssa Taylor, a senior at Menlo Park's Mid-Peninsula High School, told of going into a deep depression when her aunt, who had been a second mother to her, died recently.
Taylor, whose father left the family when she was young, said the Boys & Girls Club "has shown me that I have another family and support system.
"When I am blinded by my challenges they show me that I can make it as long as I keep my head up and work at it," she said.
Stacie Foreman, also a senior at Mid-Peninsula High School, said the Boys & Girls Club helped her find a sense of confidence, meaning and purpose.
"I am proud to declare that despite my challenges I am resilient and committed to my future," she said.
The five-member judging panel included HP Chief Information Officer Ramon Baez as well as Jobs, Hoffman, Wojcicki and Dorsey.