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Uplifting Palo Alto stories that brightened 2016

This year's forces of good, from teens overcoming adversity to a community-wide search for a missing mentally ill man

Some Palo Alto residents have said they are suffering from burnout after a year of pessimism and negative national news stories. But closer to home, 2016 did see several inspirational and uplifting stories.

A lonely Barron Park donkey got a new pal; Palo Alto high school graduates overcame adversity and suicides; a mentally ill man who disappeared was found safe. People reached out to each other, providing comfort and solace, and neighbors worked together to settle disagreements. Some of the city's oldest residents showed us how to continue to live a good life.

Read on for the nine most uplifting stories of 2016.

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Equine therapy helped dementia patients

A pilot project at Stanford University's Red Barn paired five early-onset dementia patients and their caregivers with horses to study the effects of equine therapy. The Connected Horse Project immersed the patients in a three-week interactive program to measure if interacting with horses could improve depression, stress, sleep and perceived social support for the patients and caregivers. The study hopes to find if patients who often feel demoralized after a dementia diagnosis can gain confidence and relate better.

"As equestrians, we know there's a very real healing presence about horses. We hope our project is a way the person with dementia and their care partner can learn coping skills, have an outlet for engagement and overcome stress, which can help them deal with the road that's ahead," Nancy Schier Anzelmo, one of the program's founders, said in January.

Graduates found greater meaning in life

Gunn and Palo Alto high school graduates proved their power to overcome adversity this year, transcending the tragic deaths of classmates and controversies regarding school programs. Students from both schools spoke eloquently at their graduation ceremonies in June about making a difference.

Student leaders from both schools reminded their classmates that success doesn't have to be on other people' terms. In a community of some of the world's greatest entrepreneurs, the students stressed individuality and acceptance, regardless of achievements, and the flexibility to follow one's own path.

"We are fighters," graduating Gunn senior Hayley Krolik said at her commencement. "It's no secret that our time was especially trying and turbulent.

"Our class is comprised of pioneers,” she said. “We took the initiative of changing the narrative."

At 97, she still finds joy performing music

At nearly 100 years old, Palo Alto resident Kato Reis continues to inspire people through her music. Reis, a resident of the Vi at Palo Alto retirement community, still deftly performs the works of Chopin, Brahms and Mozart -- from memory -- on the piano. The great-great granddaughter of composer Felix Mendelssohn, she performed for U.S. troops during World War II and taught piano to the children of Hollywood stars. Decades later she has returned to the piano. She hasn't looked at written music in many years and still has about 50 works memorized.

"Maybe I won't wake up tomorrow, so I'd better play today," she said in June.

Missing for 18 days, man safely returned

When Palo Alto resident Andrew Pearl left his group independent-living residence in July, he had gone off his anti-psychoses medication and ditched his identification and wallet. Those actions set off a community-wide search for Pearl, 30. His family blanketed the Bay Area with fliers seeking his whereabouts. Dozens of people came forward to help, including members of the city's Downtown Streets Team. Eighteen days later, on July 29, Pearl showed up unharmed at La Selva Group, a facility on Forest Avenue, and his relieved parents released a photo of themselves reunited with their smiling son.

Mother, kids, gave post-election hugs and cookies

Stunned Democratic voters reeling from Donald Trump's election on Nov. 8 received a little TLC from Palo Altan Whitney Lundeen and her children. They took to the streets -- not to protest but to offer post-election comfort, in the form of homemade cookies and hugs.

"If you're feeling sad, come have a cookie and a hug if you need one," their sign, replete with hand-drawn hearts, said.

Neighbors resolved Airbnb conflict peaceably

What could have become an ugly battle between Palo Altan Gordon Stewart and his neighbors earlier this year turned into a collaborative effort. Stewart, who was having a hard time finding a family or suitable single renter to lease his Crescent Park home, suggested an idea to his neighbors: turning the house into an Airbnb rental. His neighbors opposed the move, taking the issue to the city. Stewart eventually reversed his proposal and in early October, neighbors stepped in to help him find a renter.

WW II vet, 99, recalled his compassion

Readers met a remarkable 99-year-old veteran, Joe Graham, in a November story. Graham, a World War II tank-company commander, had the difficult job of writing condolence letters to families. The Channing House resident discussed the importance of those personal letters, which went above and beyond the War Department's standard dispatch. They were often the only real information about their loved one's last hours.

"Your letter to the next of kin is probably going to be in the archives of the family 40 years or indefinitely, or the grandchildren are going to go back in search of where their relative died to take a picture," he said.

Palo Alto donkey returns home, gets new mate

This year, Barron Park got back its famed donkey, Perry, and a new addition: Jenny, a female donkey, in November. Perry, 22, and his pal Miner 49er, 32, were removed from their pasture near Bol Park after Niner suffered respiratory distress. The elder donkey was euthanized in September; Perry was kept in Salinas while he went through a mourning period and a complete physical. Palo Alto Donkey Project volunteers searched for a new mate, settling on another lonely donkey in desperate need of a home. On Nov. 15, Jenny joined him in Palo Alto, with the permission of property owner James Witt. The Donkey Project also gained new life, with a fundraising campaign and a five-member steering committee to expand community involvement. In mid- December the Palo Alto City Council unanimously approved spending $15,000 to support the Donkey Project, which is seeking to raise $125,000 to cover five years of expenses for the donkeys.

Jasper Ridge Farm brought respite from pain

Children facing life-threatening illnesses got a helping hand in the morale department from a menagerie of barnyard animals through the nonprofit Jasper Ridge Farms this December. Wooly or covered in fur, manes and tails switching, the miniature horses, sheep, bunnies, dogs and other animals provide respite from the daily grind of painful injections and tests. The program offers a summer camp, riding programs and animal visits for children and veterans at a 2.5-acre farm that opened in Portola Valley this July.

Related content:

Takeaways of 2016

This year's headshakers

The 12 stories that Palo Alto Online users engaged with the most

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Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Longtime Resident
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Dec 31, 2016 at 11:35 am

The article reports:
"In mid-December the Palo Alto City Council unanimously approved spending $15,000 to support the Donkey Project, which is seeking to raise $125,000 to cover five years of expenses for the donkeys."

Only in Palo Alto does it take $25K per year to care for 2 donkeys.

Even 15K from council. I mean, really. It's time for taxpayers to wise up. QUESTION LOCAL LEADERS. Be adults.


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

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