Where everyone is the most important person in the history of the world | September 8, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 8, 2023

Where everyone is the most important person in the history of the world

Through athletic fitness, nature awareness, community service and the creative arts, the Riekes Center makes connections

by Emma Donelly-Higgins

J. Pablo Diaz Lopez first attended classes at the Riekes Center in the North Fair Oaks neighborhood when he was a sophomore in high school. As a student at Summit Everest Public High School in Redwood City, he was required to take extracurricular fitness classes at the center. He and his classmates played games, learned how to use gym equipment and recorded their fitness progress.

Eight years later, Diaz Lopez still spends time at the center — although now his role is more teacher than student — and credits his experiences there with helping him mature into a confident person equipped with the tools necessary for success.

The Riekes Center helps people of all ages and abilities achieve self-determined goals for fitness, artistic, community service and nature awareness. Students include international Paralympians and local kindergartners. On a deeper level, the center promotes confidence and personal responsibility through intentional human connection.

The space is a converted soap factory on an unassuming street in San Mateo County, where bright red and orange walls are crowded with framed photos and mementos detailing the history of the center. Like its four disciplines of focus, the center's rooms overlap, with a gap in the small art studio peering into the expansive gym and the sounds of rooftop squirrels mixing with human chatter.

"The center, locationally, is set up to cross across different abilities, different opportunities, different programs, so that you are in an environment of diversity," Director of Community Services Lex Ebbink-Alemania said. "Even if you only play football, you get to see the guitar program or see the nature program."

This set-up encourages students like Diaz Lopez to be adaptable. During his time at Riekes, he has taught group art classes, designed T-shirts for the band, taught people how to track animals, counseled the interdisciplinary summer camp and more. Student/instructor roles also tend to cross-pollinate. Diaz Lopez was initially a student and now continues to learn at the center while also working as an instructor and mentor.

Mentorship was a key factor in Diaz Lopez's success. He recalled meeting the center's late founder, Gary Riekes, while washing his hands.

"He was shaving in the facilities bathroom," Diaz Lopez said. "He was like 'Hello, I'm Gary. Nice to meet you. Would you like to work here?'"

Diaz Lopez accepted the offer and started that week, first as a community service volunteer and later as an art, fitness and nature instructor. He has worked with a wide range of people, including older adults and children as young as 5 years old.

"I've done a little bit of everything that the center offers because of that mentorship that I had from Gary," he said. "Gary took me under his wing."

Riekes's style of mentorship was about doing first and explaining later.

"​​His methods were very unorthodox," Diaz Lopez said. "Instead of first letting me know what I was gonna do and why I was doing it, it was backwards."

"It mattered about the connection that we made and making them feel comfortable, making them feel connected, making them wanting to come back," Diaz Lopez said. "What a lot of people don't get about the center is that it's not about the activity that goes on there. That's a byproduct."

The center focuses on personal responsibility, which applies to creating the environment at the center. Students, instructors and everyone in between are responsible for co-creating the space, Newton said.

"The person that walks in the door is the most important person in the history of the world," Newton said.

This ethos, as well as other core values central to the center such as sensitivity to others, honest communication and self-supervision, have helped Diaz Lopez grow in maturity.

"In my daily life, I just like to use them (the core values) as a standard to hold myself accountable to whatever it is I'm doing for that day or for treating people the way that I would like to be treated," he said.

Newton and other staff at the center see Diaz Lopez as an ideal mentor.

"He really did a beautiful job of embodying being a caregiver and care receiver in our peer-to-peer mentoring methodology," Newton said.

As a pre-law, political science student at San Jose State University, Diaz Lopez plans to continue working at the center for at least the next few years. The skills he learned there, on the other hand, are ones he intends to practice for life. n

'It mattered about the connection that we made and making them feel comfortable, making them feel connected, making them wanting to come back.'

J. Pablo Diaz Lopez, student and instructor, Riekes Center


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