Caring Neighborhoods Challenge seeks to spread the love | April 12, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 12, 2013

Caring Neighborhoods Challenge seeks to spread the love

Latest Project Safety Net initiative for Palo Alto kids begins this month

by Sue Dremann

As Terry Godfrey sipped a warm beverage at a cafe near her home in Evergreen Park last week, she posed a question she hopes will challenge Palo Alto residents in the coming months: "How would you feel if you were raised in a neighborhood where adults speak to you and look you in the eye?"

Godfrey — who heads a team that is part of Project Safety Net, a coalition of city, school and community leaders — is taking a central role in a new project intended to help Palo Alto's youth feel welcome and wanted. She and others have launched a campaign this month to give neighborhoods a stake in bringing up youth to be happy, healthy and cherished.

Dubbed the Caring Neighborhoods Challenge, the effort will roll out a mini-grants program, photo contest with cash prizes and how-to kits for hosting block parties and events. The organization's website will have useful ideas for making a neighborhood a fun and welcoming place for youth, she said.

Project Safety Net, which was created after several suicides of Palo Alto students and young adults in 2009 and 2010, is working to foster 41 "developmental assets" — an array of experiences, relationships and opportunities that are essential for youth to thrive, decades of research has shown.

Only 57 percent of fifth-graders, 49 percent of seventh-graders and 35 percent of high school students in Palo Alto reported they felt their neighborhood is caring, according to a 2010-11 survey conducted by the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Godfrey said volumes of research show that youth who reside in caring neighborhoods have higher grades, display greater self-esteem, experience less violence and are less likely to abuse substances. The Caring Neighborhoods Challenge is aimed at giving youth a sense of having caring neighbors, feeling that community adults value youth, and giving them useful roles in the community, she said.

Improved neighborhood relationships has been a focus citywide for the past year. Former Mayor Yiaway Yeh hosted his year-long "Mayor's Challenge" in 2012, a series of recreational activities aimed at helping neighbors to get to know one another. Last September, the Palo Alto City Council approved a neighborhood mini-grant program that will help neighborhood leaders create intergenerational events and gatherings.

The council is also expected to adopt "youth well-being" this month as one of its "core values" for 2013.

A study of 343 Chicago neighborhoods found that in strong communities where adults are willing to intervene in the lives of youth, the neighborhood has less truancy, graffiti and violence. Other benefits include a greater sense of community, improved community activism around issues and easier dispute-resolution among neighbors.

Godfrey said she and other team members will reach out to neighborhood associations and other groups.

"If I could get one-third of neighborhoods to do something this summer, I would be pretty happy. Throw a block party, or have a movie or game night. ... It's something everybody can do. I'm not asking them to boil the ocean," she said.

Some people may argue they're too busy to get involved with people on their blocks. But Godfrey argues that neighborhoods are important.

"What else is there in life? You have your family, your neighborhood and your community. Even if it's not your kid, don't you want the kid who grows up down the block to be a well-rounded individual?" she said.

Among the activities Godfrey hopes youth will participate in this spring and summer is a photo contest in which the young people will document events taking place in their neighborhood. Each month from May through September a $50 prize will be awarded for the top two photos.

Initiative leaders will also pay for treats for "Cookies+Conversation" events, which are designed as 90-minute breaks from everyday life with some cookies and lemonade, hosted on a porch or driveway in the neighborhood. The low-key event is a way to take action without a huge time or financial commitment, Godfrey said.

"You don't have to shut down a street or clean your house. Neighbors, young and formerly young, have the chance to meet, chat and catch up. You can say, 'Here's my porch. Here's lemonade and cookies. Let's have a conversation,'" she said.

Godfrey hosts a very successful Trampoline Tuesday at her home during the summer for Evergreen Park neighborhood kids. The events have brought many children closer to each other and enabled them to know their neighborhood better.

They develop a sense of trust and safety — of knowing which adults have a "safe house" where a child can go in times of trouble, she said.

Getting to know neighbors doesn't have to involve extra time or money, she said. Little things that are already part of one's routine can be a first step: invite another family to come along on a dog walk or join someone while walking theirs; let neighbors know that kids are free to use a basketball hoop or tree swing in the front yard, Godfrey said.

Another way to value a young person is to ask him or her for help, perhaps using technology, Godfrey said. An older resident can ask a young person to teach him something new.

Once people get into the habit of involving youth in their neighborhoods, it will become second nature, she said. But Godfrey said she doesn't have illusions.

"Making that kind of change takes time," she said.

More information is available at

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at


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