A train passed by.
"At first it feels somewhat silly to be out here," said Rothstein, a stay-at-home mom with two young children. "Now it seems totally normal."
Rothstein is one of a handful of volunteers taking turns sitting by the tracks during the evening in response to the recent deaths of four teens at the crossing.
It's a simple task, but the volunteers hope it will accomplish something meaningful — bring hope to Palo Alto's youth.
"It seems like the right thing to do," Rothstein said.
The idea of being a visible, caring presence along West Meadow occurred to many people in Palo Alto at once, Rothstein said. Through the Internet and the PTA, the would-be volunteers found one another and set up a schedule for themselves, starting last week.
There are about 10 committed, regularly scheduled volunteers right now, said Rothstein, who lives not too far from West Meadow. But many more people have contacted her.
One of those was Marielena Gaona-Mendoza, another Palo Alto mother.
She said she had come to the train crossing one Saturday morning in June, hoping for some way to help. She talked to the police officers who were monitoring the tracks. They assured her they were taking care of it.
"They said to go home," said Gaona-Mendoza, a short, round woman with a friendly smile. "I should have been stubborn."
After the latest fatality, "I just felt more guilty," she said. "If I stood here, it wouldn't have happened."
The police discouraged a volunteer effort before, but now they believe it just might help, according to Police Sgt. Dan Ryan.
Modifying the Caltrain crossing has become the focus of city and community efforts, due to scientific research that shows that making physical changes to a location associated with suicide is helpful in breaking the cycle.
Changes in lighting, tree-trimming and electronic sensors all are ways to make the tracks "a less attractive place" for people in trouble, Police Chief Dennis Burns told a committee of city and school representatives last week.
But some of the changes will take awhile to think through and carry out.
In the meantime, volunteers hope they can literally be the difference.
"The key is their presence. They're visibly there," Ryan said. "They certainly are motivated to be a calming presence."
Police officers occasionally join the volunteers, parking a squad car nearby. They've offered advice to the volunteers, and based on it, Rothstein developed a question-and-answer sheet to orient group members.
Reaction to their presence has been positive, Gaona Mendoza said. On Halloween night, a woman passed by and saw them sitting in the cold. So she went home and returned with cups of hot chocolate.
Others walk by and nod or smile.
Volunteering to sit on the sidewalk by a chain-link fence as cars whoosh by may not be everyone's idea of helping. Rothstein said the work is ordinary.
"You come, sit, watch and hope for the best," she said.
Volunteer Margarita Jimenez, Gaona-Mendoza's niece, admitted she was initially skeptical of the idea.
"At first, I wasn't sure if this was going to work. I was afraid of being criticized or something," the 31-year-old said. But after taking a shift with her aunt, she was willing to continue.
"I want to set an example to never give up, keep going, to be optimistic about things," she said, citing stress that youth face from school, friends and family.
She said she wants young people to know that they can be open about their problems. Her advice: "Not to rush out and make decisions when they're down, but sit back and relax and think about the good things they have and do."
Rothstein said she worries that publicizing the effort will bring unintended consequences or raise unrealistic expectations. But she doesn't profess to be a psychologist, she said, just a person who wants to help.
The volunteers are doing the best they can, she said. And it brings them comfort knowing they're doing something.
"It is better to be here than at home," said Gaona-Mendoza, who sometimes stays there late.
Ultimately, the volunteers said they just want to communicate a message.
"Tell the kids that there's hope, and we love them a lot. Even if we don't know them, we love them," Gaona-Mendoza said.
The e-mail address for the volunteer effort is [email protected]
This story contains 775 words.
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