Four individuals and organizations who have contributed to improving children's quality of life have been named as recipients of the 2016 Tall Tree Awards, one of Palo Alto's most prestigious honors, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and Palo Alto Weekly have announced.
This year's recipients built a playground for children with disabilities; donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in bike equipment to schools to make biking safer; funded a new high school athletics center that is expected to be a city jewel for generations; and dedicated thousands of hours to tree planting. Their efforts, from sweat equity to large donations, will be honored on May 4.
The Chamber and the Weekly sponsor the awards.
This year's honorees are marketing professional Olenka Villareal, real estate investor Richard Peery, small business Palo Alto Bicycles and nonprofit Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto.
Olenka Villareal, Outstanding Citizen Volunteer
When Olenka Villareal discovered that Palo Alto's parks were not accessible to her disabled daughter, Ava, she set out to create a playground where any child or adult would feel welcome. None of the city's 34 parks had equipment that Ava, who needs support in a swing, could use.
So Villareal doggedly pursued her Magical Bridge playground, so named because it would bridge both the able-bodied and disabled communities, she said.
She joined the board of Friends of the Palo Alto Parks in 2008 and galvanized the city, the community, businesses and nonprofits to raise $4 million. Villareal's organizational and marketing skills, as well as her cause, attracted many benefactors and volunteers, including the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund, which granted $25,000 to Magical Bridge. The playground opened to fanfare last April.
"At the heart of the mission has always been Olenka, who never once gave up the dream of building a breakthrough playground designed for children of all ages and all abilities," one nomination letter stated.
Magical Bridge provides wheelchair access on merry-go-rounds and slides, ramps to a two-story playhouse and wheelchair accessibility on other play equipment. And parents with disabilities are now able to push their children on the swings and assist them on the other equipment.
But only 10 percent of people with disabilities use wheelchairs, according to Villareal. Ninety percent have other types of disabilities. So the playground also has features that help children with autism and visual disabilities.
Richard Peery, Outstanding Professional/Business Person
If Olenka Villareal was the driver of the seven-year Magical Bridge campaign, Richard Peery provided the fuel for getting the engine going and keeping it running, donating $1 million through the Peery Foundation.
Arguably one of the largest real estate investors in northern California, Peery was raised in Palo Alto and attended Palo Alto High School. He has spent much of his life preserving and enhancing beloved nuggets of Palo Alto life. Stanford Theatre and 180 University Ave., both historic properties that would have faced the wrecking ball, were two of his many investments that have contributed to Palo Alto's quality of life.
Often described as a private man who eschews the limelight, he has a reputation as not only as a vastly successful businessman but one who is generous with his time and wise counsel, said a longtime acquaintance who nominated Peery. He recalled that Peery started with nothing in 1962.
"He has always had a unique talent for business starting when he was in junior high when he installed gumball machines in Stanford fraternity houses," the nomination letter stated.
Peery's quiet financial contributions are everywhere in Palo Alto. His major donations have included the Palo Alto High School athletic complex now under construction, rehabilitation of the Ross Road Family YMCA and the construction of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
"The core mission of the Peery Foundation is to support youth and families in poverty," son Dave Peery told the Weekly in 2013 when the foundation offered to donate $24 million for the new athletic center at Paly.
"Recognizing that Palo Alto is not exactly an impoverished community, my dad is at a point in his life where he's motivated to give back to his hometown in a meaningful way."
Palo Alto Bicycles, Outstanding Business
The power of initiative to effect change in the community is also exemplified by Jeff Selzer, general manager of Palo Alto Bicycles.
The store has contributed more than $300,000 to schools, nonprofit groups and special events in the past 15 years.
Barbara Gross, a founder of the Palo Alto Downtown Business & Professional Association, attributed much of the store's contributions to Selzer's dedication and energy.
"I am continually impressed by Jeff's integrity and standards for himself, his business and employees, his service and generosity to the community. His thoughtfulness is elegantly balanced with his great sense of humor and optimism. He is a great asset to our community," she told the Weekly.
Selzer assisted the city in choosing and installing bicycle parking around Palo Alto. The store was a major advocate in having the Bay Area Bike Share bike-rental program installed, and since 1998 it has operated the Bikestation at the Palo Alto Caltrain station.
The store's advocacy for bicycling is one of the key reasons for the success of the Palo Alto Safe Routes to School program, another nominating letter stated. Palo Alto Bicycles contributes locks, bells and helmets to students, and Selzer has contributed his personal time to maintenance check-ups on student bicycles.
Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto, Outstanding Nonprofit
When it comes to schools, the Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto has had a hand in helping for 91 years. The organization's first project in 1925 provided milk to Palo Alto school children.
Today, the nonprofit Kiwanis sponsors Key Clubs at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools to help foster the next generation of service-oriented citizens. Kiwanis provides advisers and financial support to help students learn leadership skills, and it sponsors scholarships for students.
Members have worked with schools on diversity issues, contributing funding to Camp Everytown, a four-day overnight trip for students and staff through which they learn about racism, genderism and other stereotypes.
"The Kiwanis is not just a group that contributes money to these causes but actually educates and encourages its members to participate in activities that it sponsors," a nomination letter from school staff stated.
Kiwanis of Palo Alto has also helped beautify the city. For more than 15 years, it has contributed financial support to Canopy, the Palo Alto nonprofit that advocates for the urban forest. But Kiwanis members have also gone through training programs to plant trees and, as tree-care leaders, watered, fertilized and maintained the city's leafy canopy.
When Palo Alto's largest tree debacle took place, Kiwanis stepped in.
"Over 20 Kiwanians helped lead community members in replanting trees on California Avenue after the untimely removal of existing trees," a nominating letter stated.
The club also began planting trees with Canopy to leaf out East Palo Alto.
In keeping with its work related to children, the Kiwanis built the Heritage Park playground in Palo Alto. The organization "adopted" Palo Alto Community Child Care to enhance the agency's facilities and built playgrounds at four of its centers.
"They have painted classrooms, built fences, erected sheds and shoveled hundreds, if not thousands, of wheelbarrows filled with wood chips. They have built garden beds, sandboxes and seating around treasured trees," another letter stated.
"All of this work done with great enthusiasm, energy and compassion of each member."
The Tall Tree Awards will take place at the Crown Plaza Hotel, 4290 El Camino Real in Palo Alto, 5:30-9 p.m. and includes an informal dinner at food stations and champagne and dessert awards ceremony.