Los Altos boasts top-performing schools, and students are learning more than math, English and history. Many of them are also getting a hands-on education in community service.
Beginning in elementary school, students have opportunities to lend a hand and absorb better-to-give-than-receive lessons through school organizations, community non-profit groups and a local author who is inspired to empower youth.
Schools: Children helping children
In the Los Altos School District, students learn leadership skills and becoming globally aware through programs that raise money for needy children.
Last fall, the district gathered the student councils for a Student Leadership Summit. Free the Children, a network of children helping children through education, hosted the event, which encouraged students to sponsor programs and fundraisers that help the less fortunate.
Throughout the year, several student councils and clubs raise funds for charities of their choice, including Free the Children.
At Oak School, students and teachers created FLOW (Future Leaders of Our World). Members raised money and suggested ideas for organizations to support.
“I think (service-based learning) really enriches our school and gives kids leadership skills,” said Oak Principal Amy Romem. “They get to be a part of something from beginning to end.”
Funds children raised a few years ago helped build a school in Sierra Leone, Romem said. Last year, students purchased supplies for the African school.
Students also think locally, said Romem, who told of a student approaching her about supporting Humane Society Silicon Valley. She said teachers attempt to balance the students’ local and global perspectives.
At Covington School, students who learned the plight of children in Sierra Leone organized a Change for Change drive and several bake sales, raising more than $3,000.
“I think it is so important when we are blessed with so much that we just understand where we are,” said Erin Zaich, a Covington sixth-grade teacher who incorporates lessons on global awareness and social activism. “We are wanting to build up children who have empathy for others. It is empowering for them to understand that they can make a change, even if it is small.”
Non-profit groups: Giving back
Local non-profit organizations, including the Los Altos Kiwanis Club-sponsored K-Kids program at Loyola School and the local chapter of the National Charity League, have made it their mission to teach children the value of community service.
The K-Kids Club – which boasts up to 20 second- through sixth-graders – is concerned more with shaping young minds than collecting money for charity, according to Howard Bischoff, Kiwanis adviser to the K-Kids Club.
“We’re trying to teach the kids to give back in a way that’s not necessarily writing checks,” Bischoff said. “We’re trying to teach these kids that not only is (community service) fun, but that it’s easy and rewarding. And that it makes you feel good inside.”
Founded eight years ago, K-Kids does little fundraising, instead encouraging children to give through service.
To date, members of K-Kids have crafted handmade greeting cards for patients at El Camino Hospital, collected toiletries to donate to the Community Service Agency, picked up trash at Loyola and cleaned the school’s library. Its largest project, an annual eyeglasses drive, has netted more than 1,200 pair of glasses for Direct Relief International.
The K-Kids Club meets twice a month to choose community service activities and participate in projects. Members run the meetings – not the adult advisers – to encourage leadership, interest and initiative.
Bischoff said the club is an important part of the community, not just for the children.
“I wish there were more charities like this around town,” he said. “We’re very fortunate in this area, and not everybody has what we have. I think everybody needs to give back something in some way to help make our world a little better.”
Like K-Kids, the Orchard Valley Chapter of the National Charity League works to engage youth in community service.
The club comprises 200 members – all mother and daughter duos – primarily from Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View.
The charity work focuses on philanthropy, leadership development and cultural experiences in the community.
“It teaches them about community service, because it makes them appreciate everything they have and appreciate the community they live in,” said immediate past president Laura Rogers.
The mothers and daughters work with 12 philanthropies, including Acterra, Habitat for Humanity, Ronald McDonald House, Reading Partners and the Los Altos Community Foundation. Their work serves a variety of needs, such as teaching children to read, building houses, making placemats, serving meals and collecting toiletries.
“It’s very hands-on,” Rogers said. “They can really see what they’re doing.”
The program’s benefits extend beyond the community – it also provides an opportunity for mothers and daughters to bond. Open to girls beginning in seventh grade, the six-year program takes place during a critical age.
“Mothers are always looking for something to do with their daughters that is meaningful,” Rogers said.
Among the National Charity League’s core values are honoring the mother/daughter bond by learning, growing and modeling responsibility and graciousness together; empowering women with the skills and confidence to lead others; nurturing others through mentorship; and inspiring a legacy of social awareness and compassion.
“People don’t always see what the benefit (of community service) is, because they don’t always get a grade,” Rogers said. “It’s about growing as a person.”
Local author: One man’s mission
To encourage youth to give back to the community, Los Altos author Adrian Mikolajczak – pen name Wali Waza P.E. – wrote the children’s book “From Rabble to Riches” (WaliWaza LLC, 2010).
“I really wanted to teach kids how important it is to be persistent in their explorations and to really think about giving,” he said.
Inspired by his son, Mikolajczak’s book chronicles the life of Wali, an engineer who sets out to transform his community and the world.
“I hope it will inspire (my son’s) interest in learning, his creativity and most importantly, an interest in true, thoughtful giving,” he said. “I also wanted to pass on lessons from my own life, including the importance of persistence and constant exploration.”
“From Rabble to Riches” is written for children 4-8, Mikolajczak said, but the book’s website (waliwaza.com) welcomes readers of all ages. While the graphics and language may be geared toward young children, the story’s themes are not.
“Channeling your energy in ways that you can help the world” is an important theme in the book, according to the author’s website. “It’s about how an entire community advances together: It’s a ‘They’ not ‘I’ – story.”
The book is Mikolajczak’s first literary endeavor, but it’s not his first experience with charity. He is a member of Rotary International and serves on the board of the Mikolajczak Foundation. In the spirit of giving, he has donated copies of his book to Rotary and other organizations. But money is the last thing on his mind.
“I hope a lot of kids get a lot of value out of it,” he said.
Staff Writer Traci Newell contributed to this report.