It was 5:25 p.m. on a Friday when a group of about 25 kids from the Palo Alto Housing Corporation's Residential Services Program dashed up the basketball court at Palo Alto High School. A little boy volleyed an orange ball toward the basket. It hit the corner of the rim and rebounded into the kinetic frenzy of children below.
A whistle rang out in the court and Kate Young, the director of resident services at the Palo Alto Housing Corporation (PAHC), cupped her hands around her mouth.
"Alright guys, great job! Let's bring it in," she shouted.
A collective groan came out from the mass of players.
This is the PAHC's after-school club. For four days out of the week, kids who live at one of the nonprofit's below market rate housing complexes meet up in a study room and work diligently on their studies. On Fridays, they get to go to a special activity, which, for the beginning of the school year, has been a basketball program.
The after-school program received a $2,500 grant last April as part of the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund to help maintain free or low-cost activities in the program, helping to keep spots open to kids from all economic backgrounds in one of PAHC's complexes.
"We try to provide that support and those opportunities for these kids to grow, not just academically, but also to build skills like teamwork and communication, to be leaders and work in small teams," Young said. "In a variety of ways, we are giving kids extra opportunities to practice those skills. The more practice, the better."
To qualify for one of PAHC's properties, a family's income needs to be, at most, 60 percent of the area median, which is more than $120,000 in Palo Alto. Children growing up in families with lower incomes have been known to be at a higher risk for poor school performance, legal run-ins and a variety of other issues.
That's exactly the kind of path that Young and the parents said that they hope these programs will help the kids avoid. It's difficult to quantify the success of these opt-in programs, and PAHC doesn't keep track of the kids after they stop participating (there is no age limit, but kids tend to move on to another program by the time they turn 13), but Young said she has seen kids participate in the Resident Services programs for their entire public-education career and go on to four-year colleges and jobs that pay well.
Tamise Walker, whose daughter is in the program, said the program has helped her daughter build confidence and enthusiasm.
"She's reading more and she's really into trying new things," she said. "I also have an email from her teacher saying her writing has really improved. I think a lot of it is thanks to the enthusiasm she's building from all the sports and extra studying."
Confidence is something that Isis, Walker's daughter, certainly doesn't lack. In the basketball program, she was awarded the "Great Intensity" award, and she was one of the first to migrate from the beginner group to the advanced group. How did she do it?
"Well, it was just too easy," she boasted with a smile.
Her confidence didn't end on the court, either. At the two-hour homework time, the kids closed out the study session with a team-building exercise in which the group held different points along a 6-foot string. Everyone closed their eyes except for a leader, who directed the team verbally so that the string took on a square, triangle or a star.
When they asked for a leader, Isis' hand shot up in the air. For about five minutes, she then directed the group as they tangled themselves into something that resembled a five-pointed star. Everyone opened their eyes and broke into a discussion of what worked and what didn't in the attempt. Some of the girls began showing off their cartwheels, and the group eventually moved back into the clubhouse.
By having the homework club on the premises where they live, the kids can be in a safe place and grow more comfortable with their neighbors, explained Young.
"It's nice for parents to know where their kids are," she said.
Lorena De Anda said that she's glad her daughter, Jade, has a learning environment with peers who have become like family.
"She always wants to get out of the house because she's an only child," De Anda explained. "She's always excited to come to this because she has made some very close friends. Today I came and I saw her dancing with some of her friends, so I think she's very happy."
Jade had never played basketball before, but she quickly moved into the advanced group.
"At first, it was really scary. I kept failing over and over again, but it got a little easier each time. It was kind of like how Mario levels (in the video game) get harder and harder, but if you keep trying, it gets better," she explained.
Young has been leading youth programs with PAHC for 12 years, and that's exactly how she's been trying to build these kids up.
"We want to create an environment for learning and growth," she said. "We're really selective about our activities because we want them to build those life skills."
Donations to the Holiday Fund can be made here.