The Palo Alto High School students took time off from school to repaint faded Midtown neighborhood house numbers on city curbs so emergency personnel can more easily identify homes during a fire, medical response or disaster.
"Or also, if you're ordering pizza at night," Jeremy said.
The project was part of Paly's Community Service Day, a school-wide effort during which students, teachers and parents work together to help others. Students volunteered with more than 25 organizations, playing music for the elderly, digging out invasive plants and more.
Jeremy, Ben and Yerem joined Midtown block-preparedness coordinator Cynthia Tham for the curb-painting project. They gathered on South Court with paint tray, roller, stencils and spray can at the ready.
Ben laid down a roughly 6-by-8-inch stencil and deftly rolled white reflective paint across the rectangular opening. Jeremy and Yerem soon followed, taping house-number stencils together into a cardstock frame.
When the white paint dried, they carefully placed the stencils on top. Yerem held the paper in place, while Jeremy sprayed black paint across the numbers.
The students would paint at 18 houses before they were done — with the homeowners' permission — Tham said. Four teams each painted at approximately 25 locations.
The painting project is a partnership between the students, the nonprofit Youth Community Service and the Midtown Residents Association, she said.
Tham is one of a group of concerned residents who learned in March that Palo Alto youth often feel unwelcome in their own neighborhoods. According to the city's 2010 "developmental assets" survey, only 35 percent of Palo Alto high school students felt valued by their neighbors, and only 22 percent felt valued by their community, Palo Alto Board of Education member Melissa Baten Caswell told Midtown residents in March.
She urged residents to develop projects with neighborhood youth. Annette Glanckopf, Midtown Residents Association vice-chair, conceived of curb painting in the neighborhood, Tham said.
The strategy seemed to be working Tuesday. As the boys prepared to paint house number, they reflected on how public service has helped improve their sense of self.
For many young people making the transition from middle school to high school, a sense of accomplishment and responsibility are important, Jeremy said. In middle school, kids still feel as though people expect them to be dependent, but high school poses new challenges.
"You gotta start manning up and taking more responsibility," he said.
Community service has made him feel he is respected by his community, he said.
Yerem said that service has improved his value of the community.
"It makes me notice the unity of Palo Alto; it improves my perception of it," he said.
Ben has recently become involved in volunteerism. Last fall he was co-chair of the Duveneck Elementary School Harvest Carnival.
"It feels amazing," he said.
Tham said the neighborhood association is considering other projects to bring together youth and adults — a mentor directory would pair people in the same neighborhood based on their careers or career aspirations. Through potlucks, kids and families who have similar interests could connect.
A neighborhood jobs program could link residents with youth providing babysitting and other services for which many residents often hire professionals, she said.
Block-sponsored projects also help young people trust their neighbors in times of trouble, the boys said.
As Yerem and Jeremy smoothed the edges of their handiwork, Tham said all of these activities are great for building a sense of purpose in youth.
At the end of the project, someone will check the house numbers to make sure each one is correct.
"It's kind of a quality control," Tham said.
But Jeremy didn't need anyone's validation.
The white rectangle with its black numbers jumped out boldly from the curb. Nearby, a faded, flaking marking done by the city years ago looked pale by comparison.
"This is quality," Jeremy said, pointing to the trio's finished product. "This is quality work."