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Off Deadline: Can one person, or a few, make a real difference in the world?

'Make a Difference Day' volunteers in Palo Alto demonstrate how people can make an impact

Most of us raised in the 1960s-70s era well remember when renowned cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead gave the world some sage advice: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

That line, or a slightly longer (also trademarked) line also quoted widely, could have been the theme of a "Make a Difference Day" in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto last Saturday -- part of a national day dedicated to demonstrating how small groups and individuals can indeed make a difference.

Sometimes making a difference takes a bit of time and effort; causes vary from a simple planting of a tree or trees to helping others who are going through hard times. But hundreds of local volunteers, from Palo Alto and Gunn high school students to adults and young children, turned out for a day focused on Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. Nationally, millions turned out.

Locally, projects ranged from planting trees at Palo Alto's Bol Park to working on the still-emerging park and nature center at the historic Cooley Landing in East Palo Alto.

The environmental group Acterra sponsored creating flower arrangements to take to seniors at Lytton Gardens in Palo Alto, while Project WeHOPE had people package toiletries for the homeless and sort food at the nonprofit Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto. Palo Alto's Duck Pond and the Junior Museum and Zoo got some sprucing up as well.

The local effort was spearheaded by Leif Erickson, head of the Palo Alto-based Youth Community Service (YCS) organization. It was co-sponsored by the Palo Alto Family YMCA, Palo Alto University Rotary, Rotary Club of Palo Alto, Bayshore Rotary, Kiwanis Clubs, East Palo Alto-based Live in Peace and the cities of Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. The Palo Alto group Neighbors Helping Neighbors organized food restocking and food-packing projects.

But it was individuals who showed up to do the work, locally and nationally, who ultimately made the difference. The turnout was the result of personal decisions to spend time, effort and resources to improve things in ways both small and large, with or without individual recognition.

Yes, there are skeptics and scoffers at "do-gooders." But those who dig in personally to strive to make a difference invariably report that it is deeply satisfying, even if their efforts never "go viral" to become national or international sensations.

Local examples stand out, including YCS' engaging young people in positive community efforts that "build community" at personal and collective levels.

Make a Difference Day echoes recent events in Palo Alto that highlighted local examples of individuals and groups making a difference.

On Oct. 14, Project WeHOPE presented major awards to two longtime community leaders: Bill Somerville of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, now based in Oakland but with a deep history of funding programs and efforts on the Midpeninsula; and Luisa Buada, executive director of the Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto, who has spent nearly four decades helping create health centers for the disadvantaged throughout California, including once working with Cesar Chavez on health centers for migrant workers.

Buada, who received a "Trailblazer Award," opened her first community health center in 1980 in Salinas, followed by centers in Watsonville, Berkeley and East Palo Alto. She took on direction of the Ravenswood center in 2001, when it was struggling and in danger of closing, and restored it to health. It now has a new building on Bay Road, with the help of principal benefactors John and Susan Sobrato.

Somerville, a self-described maverick grant-maker, received the "Legacy Award" for his half-century of supporting beneficial community projects, including 17 years as executive director of the Peninsula Community Foundation. The Rev. Paul Bain, presenting the awards, called Somerville "the man with the magic wand ... standing out on a limb waving his wand and making magical things happen." He played a key role in funding Project WeHOPE's "Dignity on Wheels" van to provide showers and facilities for homeless people -- now being emulated elsewhere.

But in addition to the major awards, there were six individuals, a business and an organization recognized by Project WeHOPE Associate Director Alicia Garcia.

The individuals included two youngsters: 14-year-old Kara Reiss and 11-year-old Ben LeRoy, both recognized with a "Young Ambassador Award."

Reiss proposed and spearheaded a WeHOPE project last year to create a kennel for the dogs of homeless people -- a reason some homeless decline to go to shelters. The kennel is due to open soon.

LeRoy, nicknamed "Blessing Ben," raises money on his own to buy gift cards and bus passes that he gives to homeless people with inspirational notes that he writes -- his own idea.

Other individual awards went to:

• Porsche Bunton, a community worker for San Mateo County who helps homeless people use Word and Excel to create resumes and seek jobs, received an "Advocate for the Underserved" award.

• Ali Shirkhani, also a county employee working in the Center for Homelessness division, where he is a "beacon of hope and support" for homeless clients, received a "Heart for the Homeless" award.

• Keicy Fleming, affiliate with the Santa Clara County HomeFirst agency, also received a "Heart for the Homeless" award for working "tirelessly and enthusiastically to help the homeless."

• Karen Gitter, an ambassador for Whole Foods and the Jamie Oliver Food Revolution who volunteers for the Second Harvest Food Bank, received an "Education" award.

IKEA of East Palo Alto received an "Outstanding Employer" award for hiring WeHOPE clients and helping them stabilize their lives.

And an "Above and Beyond Partner Award" went to Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center for working with WeHOPE for teaching clients basic financial-management skills.

Margaret Mead would be impressed.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at He also writes periodic blogs on

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2 people like this
Posted by Christina Owen
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 2, 2015 at 2:20 pm

Jay- Thank you for highlighting the IMPACT of Make a Difference Day, Youth Community Service, WeHOPE, and some of the powerful individuals who make the Peninsula a beacon of community engagement for the world to see. I am so proud to work with hundreds of students in our community each year as they document their stellar service-learning projects and sharing their passions by giving back.

We should talk more about this "good news" that brings us together, and less about the politics and problems that create divisions among us.

Happy Season of Giving to All~

Christina Owen

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 2, 2015 at 3:02 pm

[Post removed.]

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