After 21 years working with Youth Community Service, first as a parent volunteer and then for 16 years as the nonprofit organization's executive director, Leif Erickson has watched Palo Alto's youth and their relationship to their community evolve.
When he took over the role, he shepherded a movement toward empowering the city's youth to voice their feelings during the most challenging of times, a double-suicide cluster that began in 2009. Through volunteer service programs and leadership building, he and Youth Community Service (YCS) helped the city's students find meaning and connection in a community where they felt isolated and ignored — feelings they'd reported in the 2010 Developmental Assets Survey, which polled more than 4,000 Palo Alto Unified School District students.
As he retires from his position — former Executive Director of Blossom Birth & Family Mora Oommen stepped into the role on July 1 — Erickson reflected on the changes and challenges facing today's youth. Those challenges still run deep, even as the community has made great strides, he said.
The city's young people are navigating some of the nation's — and the world's — most fearsome conundrums: the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of unprecedented climate change, a socially and politically divisive civic landscape and deep questions about racial and economic equality, he said.
But youth are stepping up to attempt to meet the challenges, creating peer leadership groups and reaching out to each other and finding meaning in working together and in the community through service projects, he said.
Erickson has seen the organization evolve since it was founded 30 years ago.
"There was an increase in concern and focus on youth mental health and wellness" since he took over the leadership, he said.
YCS has also emphasized increased connections between students of different racial, economic and ethnic backgrounds by bringing together Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park students to work collaboratively, he said.
"Service to others is a gateway asset that leads to other positive experiences" and addresses isolation, depression and anxiety, he said. Through service projects, young people interact with religious and civic organizations, older and younger generations and other groups who provide them with meaningful personal experiences and positive feedback.
One of the most positive changes he's seen is a greater willingness for adults to listen to youth. The students' 2010 Development Assets report card on the community was "kind of a shock." he said. One of the lowest scores, especially among high school students, was the sense of community values. Many felt ignored and disrespected, he said.
"The initial response to the suicide cluster was adults talking to adults over the heads of our kids," he said.
High school students and recent graduates stepped up to express themselves, however, and Erickson sees that trend continuing and evolving today. The city's youth are now speaking out with strong, informed voices in the local Black Lives Matter movement regarding racial reckoning. No longer in the shadows about issues that matter to them, they've moved toward self-empowerment.
"I think about the City Council hearings on the budget and the threat we saw to teen services and the response to teen voices. So many spoke candidly about their own mental health and the benefit of a changing narrative," he said.
Many youth programs have helped to create a feeling of connectedness to the community, which has helped young people to overcome stigmas and to speak openly, he added.
"Young people are leading the way as opposed to the adults," he said.
But Erickson cautioned against the community becoming complacent. Anxiety and depression are still widespread among students, he said.
"Some experts say that the suicides are still in a state of contagion. The problem is not just deaths; it's the continuum of attempts, hospitalization and suicidal ideation," he said. "There's a very high number of students who report a sense of anxiety and sadness over X-number of weeks. These are signs that this thing is not over."
COVID-19 has added another layer to challenge students' mental health and well-being.
"It's very tough. We're seeing more of a sense of anxiety, depression and isolation," he said.
Youth themselves, however, are taking action. YCS peer leaders have developed a youth-connectedness initiative and created a video to help students.
The pandemic may also have a silver lining, he said.
"This whole frenzied rush to college — the primacy of getting into a prestigious college — has a whole different meaning now," he said. The pandemic offers the opportunity to reduce some of the stress and tension youth have experienced.
Parents still represent one of the larger challenges to youth wellness. They still have much work to do to realize it's OK to not be hyper-focused on success, he said.
The same goes for adult behavior that is racist. Black students have recently spoken in various city- and community-sponsored forums about isolation and discrimination, including during informal social activities.
Erickson said he sees "so many challenges" currently. Everyone — young and old — is facing a need to rebuild relationships amid the coronavirus pandemic and political and cultural assaults on civic culture, he said.
Although Erickson is handing over the reins of day-to-day operations to Oommen, he'll still be on the YCS board of directors, helping to support and guide the organization's vision for improving the lives of youth and the community through selfless service, he said.
YCS "can continue to build in protecting factors of positive, service-based experiences and positive activities across generations that are an antidote to suicide and depression," he said. Looking back over the years and the organization's accomplishments, he said: "I have so much respect for our community and the way it supports YCS."
Youth Community Service will celebrate its 30th anniversary, honor Erickson and introduce Oommen on Zoom on Thursday, Sept. 24, 5:30-6:30 p.m. Anyone who would like to attend the virtual event can RSVP here.