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Giving Palo Alto teens the freedom to try

With city's help — and funding — teens follow their inspiration to launch programs, events

One Palo Alto teen started a group to raise awareness of the environment; another, to raise money for scientific research on a genetic disorder he has that causes deafness at birth and progressive vision loss. Two others organized a free computer-programming event for teens; another founded a club dedicated to making history fun and relevant for his peers. Others hosted art shows, movie nights and fundraisers for causes they're passionate about.

This melange of teen initiatives — along with many others — was made possible through the Bryant Street Garage Fund, a City of Palo Alto program that provides mini-grants to any Palo Alto high school student with an idea for a program, event, group or effort that would somehow benefit local teens.

At a time when local and national debate swirls around how to define "success" in multiple ways, how to connect students with caring adults, how to provide students with more real-world education and engagement and how to better support teenagers' well-being, the Bryant Street Garage Fund offers one model for how to do just that.

"In high school, a lot of it is finding what you like, what your passions are and what you're good at," said Palo Alto High School senior William Zhou, who with a Bryant Street Garage Fund grant founded Project Enybody, a group of Palo Alto teenagers committed to raising awareness of and fighting climate change. "Obviously in Palo Alto there's a lot of pressure to be maybe one type of student who's super-good at math and science.

"I think through Project Enybody and through seeing the successes that we've had, I've been able to understand myself more and what I want to do moving forward," he said. "It made me more confident to just be, like, 'Hey, I can do something in the community. I have the ability to do that.'"

Project Enybody ("Eny" stands for "Earth needs you") has grown from a school project Zhou was working on his sophomore year to a 20-member group of both Paly and Gunn High School students who organize events and initiatives.

Zhou and other students who have received money through the Bryant Street Garage Fund said having the city backing them — both financially and through mentorship provided by city staff — helped them achieve their goals at a level they wouldn't have been able to reach otherwise. It boosted their confidence, too, and helped them pursue causes, topics and initiatives they feel strongly about.

"I think the core point — and everything else is kind of just a residual effect of it — ... is elevating teen voice, teen ideas and standing behind them," Amal Aziz, youth and teen services director for the City of Palo Alto, said of the program.

Years ago in downtown Palo Alto, there was a teen center on Bryant Street — a place for teens to hang out, do homework, listen to music, play games, host dances and otherwise be teenagers. In the early 2000s, when the city was planning to build a public parking garage on that site, the city surveyed local teenagers to gauge whether they would prefer the city build a new teen center or a commercial space attached to the garage whose rent would go toward teen programs and activities.

Teens said they wanted the latter, so the City Council voted to build and lease the space at 455 Bryant St. with the stipulation that once the lease generated a net positive cash flow, 75 percent of the net rental revenues would go toward youth programs, Mayor Pat Burt told the Weekly. The property has been leased by Form Fitness, a gym, since 2004.

But for the first six years or so, there was no positive cash flow, and the teen fund was more or less "forgotten," Burt said.

Then about two years ago, through research his wife was conducting on the former teen center, they realized that the lease had actually started generating cash, and had been doing so for several years. Burt raised the issue as a City Council member, and the money that should have been designated for the Bryant Street Garage Fund was redirected to its rightful source.

In 2014, the City Council's Policy and Services Committee unanimously voted to recommend that up to $84,000 go to the fund for the 2015 fiscal year. They did not draw down on a then-$217,334 reserve fund, which consisted of accrued revenue from 2009 through 2013.

Today, the program has become akin to a startup incubator. Any Palo Alto teenager or group of teens can submit a basic application describing their idea, be it an educational event, a fundraiser, an art show, a movie screening, a group or a program. They then meet with Jose Perez, the city's teen program specialist — a relatively new, part-time position that oversees the growing Bryant Street Garage Fund — to flesh out their idea and write a more detailed grant proposal.

Perez consults with students one-on-one from start to finish and serves as a mentor for many of them. For longer-term projects, such as clubs that meet throughout the school year, students are required to get together with Perez at least once a month.

Many students interviewed for this article said Perez's support was critical in getting their ideas off the ground. He also comes with the connections of a city employee, giving them access to resources they might not have had otherwise. Many events are hosted at the new Mitchell Park Community Center at no cost to the teens.

"You don't really know what an adviser can bring until you have one," Zhou said. "Having that support and someone there to find resources and guide you is really great."

"We talk about the concern of adults really supporting youth and being advocates for them — I think Bryant Street Garage Fund really embodies that, especially in Jose's role," Aziz said.

A committee made up of city staff from different departments — the Art Center, the Library, Community Services and others — reviews all of the grant applications. Called the Teen Services Committee, the group evaluates proposals using a score sheet that has questions about logistics, planning and budgets. But the sheet maintains a clear focus on teens: "Is the project created by and for teens, and/or to serve teens?" "Does the project seem like one that will inspire and engage teens?" "Does the project contribute to the cultural vitality and well-being of teens?" "How many teens will benefit from the project?"

The Teen Services Committee also asks Fund applicants which of the city's 41 Developmental Assets their project would help to promote. Developmental assets have been identified through research as the "building blocks of healthy development that help young people grow up healthy, caring and responsible adults," a city document states. These assets include everything from service to others and a caring school climate to reading for pleasure and a sense of purpose.

A project will not be funded if its primary purpose does not "substantially engage teens," the score sheet states. Projects can be fundraisers, but that must be secondary to the goal of serving teens, the score sheet notes.

Students can apply for up to $1,000 each fiscal year, though if their idea will benefit a broader population of teens, they can seek more money, Perez said.

What the teens use the funding for often sounds small-scale, but its impact is huge. The high school students behind Buddies4Math, a math-tutoring program for at-risk elementary school students, used an $860 grant to buy snacks for the students and small whiteboards for the tutors to use, among other supplies. They said the young students were thrilled to have both.

Zhou used a $500 grant to cover the cost of printing fliers to advertise a nature-themed art show Project Enybody hosted. With another $1,000 grant, his group bought supplies last summer for Green Fest, an all-things-environmental festival that featured how-to's on buying locally grown food, packing eco-friendly lunches and conserving water, plus games and a talk on Palo Alto's water sources and the drought by representatives from the Tuolumne River Trust. More than 300 people attended, according to the city.

"As a teen, it's pretty hard to come by money unless you're willing to spend it yourself," Zhou said. "Bake sales and things can take a lot of time but not give you a lot of return. There are just a lot of obstacles in the way of getting started. The Bryant Street Garage Fund helps you get past those obstacles quicker."

Paly senior Kelsey Wang and junior Alice Zhang received a $1,400 grant to put on Teens Exploring Code, a free event that aimed to expose Bay Area youth from different demographics to the world of high technology.

Wang and Zhang came up with the idea last year while reflecting on their own computer-science education experiences. Both said they were encouraged and influenced by friends and family to take the computer-science classes at Paly. Wang's mother works for a software company, while Zhang's mother works in finance and her father in nuclear physics.

They also noticed that students in their computer-science classes were predominantly from certain demographic groups, and there were far more boys than girls.

"They weren't very diverse classes — the gender gap of course, and also different ethnicities were not really represented in the class," Wang told the Weekly last summer. "We thought it would be a really good idea to expose teens to computer science in a large way."

The event featured speakers from local tech companies and three coding workshops led by either current computer-science majors or graduates. Wang and Zhang estimated about 100 people came and went throughout the day.

The Bryant Street Garage Fund grant allowed them to "make the event fun," Wang said, buying T-shirts and food for participants and gifts for the speakers. They're hoping to plan a similar event this year, but it might be more in the style of a hackathon, they said.

The grant provided more than just money, though.

"It felt like the City of Palo Alto was behind us," Zhang said, and gave them credibility when asking local companies to send someone to participate. Other teens echoed that.

"It was a vote of confidence," said Ana Caklovi, a Paly senior who with fellow senior Priya Misner organized a series of free entrepreneurship classes for teens, supported by the Bryant Street Garage Fund. "It's nice to know there's an aspect of the community that's there to help you out if you have these kinds of ideas."

Before Gunn junior Kevin Ji got involved in the Bryant Street Garage Fund, he, like most high school students, had never written a grant proposal, planned an event or given any thought to how to conduct a successful advertising campaign. He was full of ideas — he said he doesn't like "sitting on the sidelines and just watching problems just go by" — but faced obstacles when trying to form clubs at schools or host school-affiliated events.

Those efforts, for the most part, require a teacher-adviser or at least a teacher presence at meetings and events, a time commitment Ji said that's often hard to convince stretched-thin teachers to make.

The Bryant Street Garage Fund removed those obstacles, he said. Its staff members became patient mentors who taught him the ins and outs of how to make his ideas reality.

"I built lots and lots of skills from interacting with them," Ji said of Perez, Aziz and other city staff. "It's really been a whole learning experience, holistically."

Ji has since received a total of four grants: one for Financial Literacy for Youth, a group he founded to provide and advocate for better financial education for students; another for Historians in Action, a club he also founded "to promote history in a community that is increasingly focused on the future and forgetting our past," he said; and two for efforts he's planning through his role as Palo Alto Youth Council events-committee chair — a new high school intramural sports program and a teen job fair with representatives from local businesses.

This is exactly how the Bryant Street Garage Fund is supposed to work. Research the city conducted with teenagers to inform the fund's mission "revealed a fear of failure that formed a psychological barrier to participation in new programs, events or services outside of academics," a November 2015 staff report states.

"The BSGF Grant Program helps teens overcome this fear of failure by mitigating and eliminating risks and barriers to trying something new. ... The result is an increase in teen participation in events and programs that enrich their lives and contribute to overall health and well-being."

The city thought that the majority of grant applications would come from established teen groups like the Palo Alto Youth Council, Teen Advisory Board and Teen Arts Council (which are all supported in part by the Bryant Street Garage Fund), but six months into the program, more than 60 percent of the proposals were from teens not previously engaged in city initiatives. Though applicants are mostly from Paly and Gunn, a growing number are coming from the all-girls independent middle and high school Castilleja School, Perez said.

Zhou said that one of the most "inspiring" parts of participating in the Fund was seeing Project Enybody inspire other teens to apply for their own grants. A Project Enybody team member went on to found a Palo Alto chapter of Girl Up, an international organization that supports United Nations programs promoting the health, safety, education and leadership of girls in developing countries. The Bryant Street Garage Fund provided Girl Up with $300 to get off the ground, and it now has 22 members.

Another Project Enybody teen is involved in Science for Sight, a fundraising group founded by a Gunn student who has Usher Syndrome.

Zhang and Wang were involved in MakeX, a teen makerspace at the Cubberley Community Center, before hosting Teens Exploring Code.

"I think it's really cool that it doesn't end with one group; it keeps branching out," Zhou said.

MakeX is one of several ongoing, sustained programs supported in part by the Bryant Street Garage Fund. Entirely student-run, MakeX is a space for both making things and for teen ownership. The group of Palo Alto students who designed the space from scratch now supervise it from top to bottom, managing the budget, planning publicity campaigns, and becoming mentors for other students. MakeX has received $13,000 from the Bryant Street Garage Fund and is otherwise funded by the Palo Alto library system.

James Wang, MakeX founder, described in a July 2015 letter to the editor in the Palo Alto Weekly the invaluable impact of providing teens with "alternative spaces" — literally and figuratively — like the Cubberley makerspace.

"Our community should tackle teen depression at its source, by providing at-risk youth with alternative spaces (outside of school and away from home) that provide opportunities for us to recuperate from the pressures we confront on a daily basis and serve as creative outlets for stress in ways that breathing and stretching cannot," he wrote.

The space is "comparably therapeutic" to talk therapy, he said, and carries the added bonus of being easily accessible and not carrying "the stigma of 'getting help.'"

"I hope Palo Alto continues to fund similar student-run spaces in the future," he wrote.

Other Bryant Street Garage Fund-supported projects have ranged from "Unmasked," a documentary made by a group of Paly and Gunn teens on the recent youth suicide clusters and related mental health topics in Palo Alto; to a theater production with a youth-only cast, crew and production director; to a history competition Ji organized last Sunday with history clubs from several Bay Area high schools, including Gunn, Paly and Saratoga High School.

About 50 people attended the Palo Alto History Bowl Tournament, Ji said, which was structured like Jeopardy with "lights, action and scoring" to make what is generally perceived by students to be a dry topic associated with onerous essays and tests into a fun, fast-paced game. Ji also invited the executive director of the Palo Alto History Museum to speak at the event.

Ji said the idea for a history bowl has been in the works for more than year. Perez has helped him revise and refine the event until it could be successfully mounted, rather than shooting him down when the concept wasn't fully formed, Ji said.

"That has really helped boost my confidence because, for example, if you're doing a math problem, there's a right answer and a wrong answer. With this, that never really happens," he said.

City staff has said the most successful and active piece of the Bryant Street Garage Fund is the grants program. Hundreds of teens have been and continue to be impacted, and city staff said in November that it was receiving new proposals every week. Cumulatively, from 2009 to 2015, $382,193 in rental revenue from 455 Bryant St. has been committed to teen programs. Since 2014, more than $34,000 has been allocated for teen grant proposals, according to Perez.

In fiscal year 2015, $18,000 from the overall fund was spent on staff salaries; $7,430 on grant funds; $4,000 for the Teen Arts Council; $1,158 for teen programs at the Art Center; and $7,448 to support MakeX, according to a staff report.

In fiscal year 2016, staff has proposed to significantly increase those commitments to $25,000 for salaries; $18,000 for grants; $7,800 for teen activities website clickPA; $13,000 for MakeX; $20,000 for the Children's Theater Teen Art Council; and $20,000 for the Art Center. With a $10,200 contingency for unanticipated expenditures, the 2016 budget has topped out at $115,000, according to a staff report.

Staff also asked the City Council's Policy and Services Committee in November to draw on the Bryant Street Garage Fund's reserve to support an outreach and advertising campaign for both the Fund and other city services and programs available to teens, plus an additional $25,000 "to support the growth of the program." Staff are moving forward with the outreach campaign with an estimated cost of $10,000, according to Aziz, and hope to get the additional $25,000 in 2017.

Staff also originally hoped to hire three hourly teen activity specialists to oversee grant applications in three areas (the Library Department; and the Arts and Sciences and Recreation divisions of the Community Services Department), but the positions have proved difficult to fill, staff said.

Perez, who works part-time, remains the only teen activity specialist.

There are other proposals for the Fund in the pipeline: the purchase of a kiln for the Mitchell Park Community Center to develop a teen ceramics program; the creation of a digital-art studio for teens; and a grant challenge called Impact PA that will focus on diversity and inclusion in Palo Alto. And those are just the city's ideas.

The oft-stated value in Palo Alto of connecting youth with "caring adults" to boost their well-being is not pie in the sky when it comes to the Bryant Street Garage Fund, participants say. Ji said while he feels "detached" from the administration at Gunn, the Fund helped him form relationships with adults in the community that benefited not only him, but all the teens involved with his own programs.

"It's a chain reaction of teens connecting with adults in the community, and I think it's really causing a positive impact," he said.

Teens who are interested in applying for a Bryant Street Garage Fund can go to cityofpaloalto.org/bsgfund.

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Upcoming Bryant Street Garage Fund events

• 'He Named Me Malala' documentary showing, hosted by Girl Up

Friday, March 18, 6:30 p.m., Mitchell Park Teen Center

• 'Coping with Cancer: A Speaker Night,' hosted by Students United Against Cancer

Sunday, March 20, 7-9 p.m., Mitchell Park Adobe Room

• 'Super-Bio Jeopardy,' hosted by Science for Sight

Thursday, March 24, 6:30 p.m., Mitchell Park Teen Center

• Youth Carnival, hosted by Financial Literacy for Youth

Friday, March 25, 4-6 p.m., Mitchell Park Teen Center/Courtyard

• Karaoke Night, hosted by clickPA and the Teen Arts Council

Friday, March 25, 6:30 p.m., Mitchell Park Teen Center

Comments

1 person likes this
Posted by Hmmm?
a resident of Mayfield
on Mar 13, 2016 at 1:00 am

Nice article. But I am wondering why no mention was made of the teen center at Cubberley that was running for several years...?


Like this comment
Posted by Teen focus.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2016 at 9:06 am

Dear City,
The existing staff are great. Please don't spend all the money on more staff, but on teens.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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