A grassroots service-learning program started by a Palo Alto High School teacher as a way to help teens find purpose and meaning outside of the classroom has launched a new summer internship program.
Get Involved Palo Alto will provide 75 students with one-month internships starting in June, each tailored to individual interests and aptitudes. Students will also be matched with mentors from more than 20 local partner organizations.
The summer program is an extension of Get Involved Palo Alto's efforts over the last seven years to stoke high school students' interests through volunteering. Paly community-service adviser Christina Owen, who started the program, sees Get Involved as part of a growing effort to provide Palo Alto teens with alternate pathways to success and personal fulfillment.
Owen started Get Involved in the wake of the cluster of youth suicides in 2009 and 2010. She felt strongly that through service learning Palo Alto teens could explore their interests with no grade, requirement or pressures attached. Her belief in this is personal: Getting involved -- from a walk-a-thon in sixth grade to a volunteer position at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View -- "saved" her at a time when she struggled with depression, she said.
Service learning is a "higher" learning concept than simple volunteering in that it empowers teens through problem solving and collaborating to address a community need. It also connects them with the broader community and with each other in different venues outside of school.
"It's student self-advocating; it's the community embracing their interests; and it's students helping each other," Owen said.
Owen launched Get Involved as an anthology of students' reflections on their service-learning experiences; the group still publishes the magazine annually. That effort morphed into a service nonprofit that has connected nearly 400 high school students with a range of volunteer opportunities in the community.
This year, there are students working with the school district to collect and analyze energy-consumption data. Others are working with the City of Palo Alto's Zero Waste program to reduce waste within the city and at school campuses, and some are working with the City of Palo Alto Utilities Department to engage students and community members in a national energy-saving competition. Other students are tutors at Jordan Middle School's afterschool homework center. In the past, students have volunteered everywhere from local schools and nonprofits to the California Youth Symphony, Foothill College's Foreign Language Department and the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos.
Students say that the group has helped them access internship and volunteer opportunities that can be challenging to find if they're unsure where to start or have no prior experience.
Through Get Involved, Paly junior Jerry Huang has interned with the City of Palo Alto working on engagement efforts for the Georgetown University Energy Prize. An app he created caught Owen's attention, and he was roped in to design one for Get Involved itself. The app will allow students to track their service hours and make that data easily accessible to others.
Huang said he found himself waking up on weekends and skipping breakfast and lunch, without complaint, to work on the Get Involved app.
"I had this motivation to finish it. I knew once I was done with it, kids were going to use it, and it was going to be something that would really benefit our community," Huang said. "It was something that drove me to finish it."
Other students feel similarly fulfilled by focusing on helping others. It's made them more confident and exposed them to careers they might want to pursue down the road, they said.
"I get to experience real work that adults do, which is a different kind of learning than I do at school," said Paly junior Emily Hwang, who spends several days a week as an energy-audit intern with the school district.
Owen also runs the program as a youth leadership opportunity. A cadre of Paly students are in charge of connecting teenagers with volunteer opportunities; managing and meeting with those students on a regular basis; running the Get Involved website and social-media platforms; taking photographs, doing graphic design and creating pamphlets; and coordinating an annual career event that brings in speakers from local companies and industries to talk to students, among other responsibilities.
"It's not about personal self-gratification; it's not about instant gratification," said one of these students, Paly junior Candace Wang. "It's about this long-term process of working through organizing things or organizing other people or getting people in touch with mentors or opportunities.
"It's (about) how it makes you feel ... (when) you've done something to help someone else achieve their dreams, their passions."
It's rewarding, too, for the participating organizations.
Rebecca Navarro, an energy specialist with the school district and a former JLS Middle School teacher, is mentoring three Paly students this semester. She trained two in energy auditing -- visiting schools and identifying areas for conservation -- and a third in analyzing utility data.
"I felt like it brings some meaning to my work if I can reconnect with students," she said. "That was more important to me than getting help with my workload or anything like that. This is mostly going to be about helping students figure out if this career path feels right to them."
Lisa Benatar, a staff specialist with City of Palo Alto Utilities, has been working with a group of Get Involved interns on the Georgetown Energy Prize. They've come up with ideas for how the city can save energy and helped to get the word out about new programs at their campuses. They've sat in on a pitch meeting with an advertising company, offered their own marketing ideas (why not use Snap Chat to promote the competition with teenagers?) and listened in on a business-development meeting for a new utilities program that's launching this summer.
"It's definitely a two-way street," Benatar said of working with the interns. "We're hoping that they're benefiting, and we're benefiting as well."
The Get Involved summer internship program is open to incoming high school sophomores, juniors, seniors and outgoing seniors at Gunn and Paly. More information is posted at getinvolvedpa.com.