Palo Alto nonprofit offers classes, raises funds for Ravenswood schools

Teenage brothers work to serve students in East Palo Alto, east Menlo Park

Few high school seniors are as committed to nourishing young minds and making a difference in their community as Gunn High School seniors Bryan and Benjamin Owens. The twin brothers have spent much of their high school years volunteering in children's programs and working to teach middle school and high school students topics that they may not learn in school, all while raising money for the Ravenswood City School District, which serves students in East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park.

It all started when Bryan was teaching debate at Youth Leadership and Innovation Initiative, a Los Altos nonprofit organization that coaches secondary school students' speech and debate skills. One of his students' parents was impressed by his teaching skills and suggested he start a discussion club for youth. Bryan began to meet with 10 middle school students each week to read and discuss news articles. Shortly thereafter, at the students' request, Bryan also started teaching current events and U.S. history, and Benjamin started teaching computer science and website design.

After some time, the brothers realized they could use the classes to benefit more than just the students in them. In January 2015, they began to charge a small enrollment fee, which would be donated to the Ravenswood City School District. To manage their funds and build a professional nonprofit organization, the two founded Silicon Valley Youth.

Since Silicon Valley Youth's launch, Bryan and Benjamin -- along with a few of their friends and former students -- have expanded the knowledge base of hundreds of middle and high school students in a range of subjects including computer programming, current events, economics, math, website design and U.S. history. Stemming from just a few classes of students who were primarily friends of Bryan and Benjamin, the organization has grown into a benefactor for Ravenswood that's raised $13,000 in under two years.

Bryan and Benjamin meet with Ravenswood administrators to discuss the district's goals and decide how Silicon Valley Youth can help accomplish those goals. This past summer, they helped Ravenswood find volunteer strings music teachers and discovered a music shop that agreed to provide free instrument maintenance and reduced rental fees for students in the district. Recently, they made a donation of $9,000 to go toward the purchase of a kiln for the district, allowing it to offer ceramics class to its students. Currently, they are assisting the district in holding a writing competition for middle school students. In the hopes of encouraging students to participate and expand their writing skills, Silicon Valley Youth will donate the prizes for contest winners, such as an iPad mini for the first place winner and $25 and $10 gift cards.

Their mother couldn't be prouder. "Their efforts allowed East Palo Alto to open a strings class and a ceramics class, and that is amazing. It's a huge achievement to have helped open two classes there," Rachel Owens said.

While Bryan continues to teach social science classes and Benjamin focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes, they have trained 12 former students as teachers and teaching assistants. They are renting classrooms at Gunn and offering a wider variety of classes.

"We ... realized we were becoming seniors in high school so we would be really busy," Bryan said. "We thought of asking our previous students if they wanted to learn some leadership skills so they could become teachers themselves and teach their own classes. ... They agreed and were pretty enthusiastic about it."

Now that they have been running Silicon Valley Youth for nearly two years and have been tutoring for nearly their entire high school careers, the brothers have gained more perspective on what their own teachers go through every day -- and how rewarding teaching can be.

"When I was teaching the website design class, it was really great to see what everyone had done at the end of the class when I had them present their websites," Benjamin said. "Some of them were personal and some of them were really funny."

Since they will be graduating next spring, the two plan to find new leaders for Silicon Valley Youth to make sure that the program continues to expand and contribute to the Ravenswood City School District.

"I have realized that everyone can help out," Benjamin said. "When we started this, we were not thinking about what we might be doing for East Palo Alto, but now we have been able to donate so much, and I think it has really helped (the district) out."


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