When Gunn High School senior Nicole Smith joined the Magical Bridge Foundation's Kindness Ambassadors program, she found her calling. After interacting with people with disabilities, Smith said she came to understand the challenges they face.
Now, she's looking toward a career developing assistive technology. It started with another student and a project to create an interactive way-finding map for the Magical Bridge playground at Mitchell Park.
"One of my fellow Kindness Ambassadors who was also working on the Magic Map is blind, and he taught me and a few others how to use a cane to navigate through a space. This experience made me feel a host of emotions: frustration, sympathy, thankfulness, and most of all, I felt so impressed with his perseverance and skill," she said in an email.
"I felt alone, confused and very frustrated when I was using the cane and I messed up and ran into something, or when I didn't know where I was."
Because of the experience, she said, "I am more aware of some of the struggles that my peers face. I also feel a sense of responsibility to continue to promote the values of Magical Bridge and work to make the world a more inclusive place for everyone."
In the future, Smith said, "I want to create technology that makes our world more equitable and accessible for everyone, regardless of the body into which they were born."
It's this kind of values-building that is at the heart of the Magical Bridge Foundation's mission.
The Kindness Ambassadors program brings students and other volunteers together to help with the park's programs and advocacy, which help to further the foundation's goals of uniting people with and without disabilities and people of all generations.
Smith helps out with events at the playground, including the summer Friday Night Concert Series, which includes activities during concerts such as face painting, coloring and braille workshops.
During the school year, she volunteers at fundraisers such as the Walk and Roll Around the Playground event and the Family Photography fundraiser.
"Regardless of the specific event, my role as a Kindness Ambassador is to be a friendly and positive force on the playground, making sure that everyone there is happy and comfortable, and that events are running smoothly," she said.
As for the tactile Magic Map, she said, "It has a digital component that connects playground coordinates with the coordinates of the user's hand. It allows those who are visually impaired to 'feel out' the playground and also provides them with other cues that are triggered based on the location of their hand. This system is designed to help everyone navigate the playground with more ease and awareness," she said.
Nathan Strope, a Palo Alto High School senior, also volunteers at the playground. He has been designated the "Kindness Ambassador of the Year" for his efforts.
Strope said he made a documentary for Magical Bridge called "The Benefits of Play."
A friend suggested that he become a Kindness Ambassador to fulfill a community service requirement in one of his classes. He lives near the playground and saw how it brought a community together.
"I jumped on the opportunity to help out there," he said. "Volunteering at Magical Bridge ... has given me a lot of great memories and hope for the future. It has also given me a lot of confidence. Everybody who I have worked with at Magical Bridge has been extremely supportive toward (me), and I know I will carry those feelings of support with me," he said.
Strope recalled two defining moments while as an ambassador. One time, he watched two children playing with a girl who had cerebral palsy.
"This in itself was already incredible to watch, but then they helped her get into one of the specially designed swings. Her face lit up even more and was in pure delight. The two kids then gently pushed her up and down. It was awesome to watch," he said.
At another event, Strope was volunteering as a stagehand for a band during the Friday Night Concert series.
"I had finished helping them and was kicking back watching the show when a kid came up to me and said: 'Uh, excuse me.'
"I looked towards him. 'Yes?'
"He then bolted off to about 10 feet away where he turned and looked back at me. I grinned and said a little louder 'What's up?' I was trying to show him that I too am still a kid.
"'Do you want to play tag?' he shouted back at me.
"Now I was grinning from ear to ear, I was so excited.
"'Of course. Five-second head start, go!'
"We then played tag for the next 30 minutes or so. We both had a blast," he said.
More information about the Kindness Ambassadors program can be found at magicalbridge.org.
This article is part of a larger story on the Magical Bridge Playground, which can be found here.
Olenka Villarreal and Jill Asher join Weekly journalists Sue Dremann and Linda Taaffe for a lively discussion about the Magical Bridge on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and on our podcast page.