The Future of Giving: Silicon Valley Kids Making an Impact
Thanks to the service work and optimistic influence of these local high school students, the future is indeed bright.
Written byJennifer Massoni Pardini
Portraits byJack Hutcheson & The Harker School
“We showed that we are united and that we, young people, are unstoppable,” said 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg at the UN Youth Climate Summit in New York City on September 21, 2019, our National CleanUp Day. Her powerful speech came during a weeklong Global Climate Strike, when Thunberg’s voice joined thousands from her generation in advocating for their future as well as our planet’s.
For this issue, we turned our attention to young people here in the Bay Area to spotlight the causes that matter most to them and what they are doing to help. And we were nothing short of floored by the reach of their compassion and the caliber of their accomplishments, from the crisis at our southern border and local food insecurity, to environmental justice and equal access. The byproduct is inspiration of the most important kind—for it at once shows just how connected this world is, and also assures us that we’re leaving our planet in some very good hands.
12th Grade, Sacred Heart Preparatory
Dasha Sokolova sat down with Gentry in between games during a water polo tournament. The senior is a driver for Sacred Heart, where she has attended since Kindergarten and last year as a junior took the school’s “Creative Inquiry” class.
“It allows students to devote a certain class period, an hour of each day, to anything that the student wants to do,” Sokolova explains of the curriculum, be it making surfboards or starting a website. “I wanted to connect to the students at one of our sister schools somewhere around the world. I was led to Uganda because we already have a lot of connections, but students never really interact or talk to them or know anything about their lives,” she says of Sacred Heart’s all-girls sister school, Kangole Senior Secondary School. In order to both help the school and foster those relationships, Sokolova contacted the school and proposed her idea for a tutoring/pen-pal program to help students with their English homework. It turned out the students didn’t need educational help—what they needed was access and proximity to water.
“My focus shifted completely, and I looked into the water issues and came up with a new plan,” she says. “I suggested I could interview girls at the school and get a better understanding of what girls go through to carry water for their family.” Sokolova came to understand that this responsibility can mean walking more than two miles to retrieve water in the morning and again in the evening. “They described how much it affected them in school, which I thought was the biggest issue,” she says of the students’ stories. “Sometimes they would be late to school or couldn’t focus in class because of back pain or exhaustion.” Sokolova took these narratives back to her Sacred Heart community in order to raise money to install three water tanks at Kangole. They exceeded their goal and will be putting the extra money toward a new career center for the school.
Sokolova shares credit with two other seniors, Keely Meyercord and Leia Bonefacio, who joined her project. “Sacred Heart really emphasizes awareness, which is one of the goals of the school,” she says. “That’s exactly what we did, which is a lot more powerful than just raising money,” she says.
Sokolova, who is currently studying AP Environmental Science, wants to ensure that climate-change awareness is a big focus of her project moving forward. She has an upcoming meeting with a group of juniors who can take the reins once she graduates. First, however, she has a second game, and hopefully win, of her water polo tournament to get to.
11th grade, The Harker School
Sixteen-year-old Jason Lin has been a Harker Eagle since third grade, and he’s been playing the viola since second. “Music provides something that helps you connect with people,” he says. “I continue to play the viola because I believe in the value of music in this fashion and it’s why I organized the concert.”
Lin is speaking of “Soaring in Concert,” a benefit he has organized for the past two years that’s raised over $70,000 for Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit committed to helping individuals, particularly immigrant women and girls, flee violence. Last year, Lin attended a talk at Stanford University by Morgan Weibel, executive director of Tahirih’s San Francisco Bay Area office, and was particularly affected by family separation at our southern border and wanted to help. “My parents have always inculcated in my sister and me that this is very important,” he says of service work broadly. “My parents are also immigrants from China who went through much hardship, and I can only imagine how hard it is for people at the border.”
“Right now we ask, ‘Could we do it?’ But I like to ask, ‘Should we do it?’”
Lin reached out to both musical friends, like legendary violinist and Bay Area native Kevin Zhu, as well as family, like his singer sister Millie Lin (who graduated from Harker last year as well). The lineup of musicians performed in the 200-seat Tateuchi Hall at Community School of Music & Arts (CSMA) in Mountain View, where Lin takes his viola lessons.
For “Soaring in Concert II” at CSMA this past August, Lin gives special shout-outs to Helen Li for managing logistics for the concert, Ethan Choi for filming it and making posters, and Farah Hosseini, who helped sell books by her father, The Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini (who donated the books and made a taped appearance).
While Lin and his viola haven’t taken to this particular stage, he has played another important role behind the camera, producing an advert for this last concert. “What I love to do is video production or video editing,” he says. “What I’ve been exploring for the past few years is ethics and technology.” Lin leads an ethics and technology forum at Harker and is currently working on a documentary about the same intersection. “My school is the most heavily STEM in the Bay Area. We seek to frame the narrative,” he says of the topics his forum raises. “Right now we ask, ‘Could we do it?’ But I like to ask, ‘Should we do it?’”
As for Soaring in Concert III, it may happen even without Lin at the helm. “Eventually, I’ll have to be shipped off to college,” Lin says. “I’m thinking of working very heavily with a freshman next year to make it a tradition.”
Athena Burrs-President, Sara Lowell & Megan Orsak
12th Grade, Castilleja School
If you’re curious what 15 years, 45 shows, 186 student producers, 1,579 rehearsal hours, 1,702 performers, 4,199 costumes, 4,557 audience members, and over $250,000 in 100% charitable donations add up to, you’d have one correct answer: Arts with a Heart (AwaH) at Castilleja School.
We learned more from three Castilleja students from Dance Production Workshop (DPW), an elective in the Visual and Performing Arts department under the faculty direction of Georgianna Shea that culminates in a performance fully choreographed, produced, managed, budgeted, and marketed by the students. Seniors Athena Burrs-President, Sara Lowell, and Megan Orsak are each bringing a range of experience and interests to this year’s performance, which benefits the Silicon Valley chapter of Second Harvest Food Bank (SHFB).
“The show is definitely more than just dances. It’s about bringing to light certain issues and highlighting the people behind them.”
The idea of addressing hunger started with Orsak, who danced in the production in middle school and now has critical roles behind the scenes with costuming, filmmaking, and interfacing with SHFB. “All the senior executives agreed that we wanted to focus on a cause and nonprofit that we could really see the impact of in our community. We thought SHFB was a great cause because we haven’t covered hunger in any of our shows before,” Orsak says. Previous shows have helped to promote peace, erase the stigma of mental illness, and celebrate the “ConfiDANCE” to be oneself, among other themes. Continues Orsak, “We wanted to specifically talk about the impact it has on people of all ages, especially teenagers and college students – our peers and the struggles they have to go through balancing education and food insecurity.”
While students, including Sara Lowell, work hard at the choreography of the production itself, raising awareness for the benefitting cause is a main focus leading up to and during the production. “Having it be a school-wide show, it just starts the conversation on campus about different issues,” says Lowell, who has been dancing as long as she can remember and typically brings contemporary and lyrical styles to her choreography for AwaH. This year, DWP will be doing a food drive, may partner with Little Free Pantry to put food and hygiene items in kiosks in needed areas in Palo Alto, and will also educate the show’s audience during the transitions between pieces. “The show is definitely more than just dances,” she adds. “It’s about bringing to light certain issues and highlighting the people behind them.”
Athena Burrs-President emphasizes that AwaH is open to all grades regardless of dance experience, making what DPW pulls off every year all the more unique and inclusive. “Before coming to Castilleja I had never seen anything like this, having that intersection between the nonprofit world and dance, and I think that makes for a really informative experience and a really expressive one,” she says. “I think you get to feel things that you wouldn’t just by watching a documentary or reading an article.”
So take it from three seniors tackling full course louds, college applications, and this incredible elective, and then check it out for yourself: AwaH’s 2020 performances will be on February 7, 8, or 9 (tickets available starting January 8 at artswithaheart.org).
12th Grade, Sacred Heart Preparatory
For Alan Kagari, several significant milestones are around the bend. As a senior at Sacred Heart, he will soon be graduating from the school he’s attended since the 6th grade. Unlike most of his classmates, he is also approaching another unique transition. “I’m coming up to that period when I’ve lived in America more than I lived in Kenya,” says Kagari, who came to California at the age of 9. “December 16, 2011,” he readily recalls of the date he and his siblings immigrated, joining their mother and moving to East Palo Alto.
Much of Kagari’s service has benefitted communities like his own as well as those with a global outlook, reflecting his impressive grasp of just how connected we all are.
As a member of PASH (Political Advocates of the Sacred Heart), a club aimed at connecting students with their elected representatives, he understands that young people have as much of a voice in the political world as adults. “Even though we can’t vote, we are still constituents and have a lot of sway over what happens politically,” Kagari says. “When we do become voters, we are much more engaged directly with the political process and already have the tools we need to follow up with representatives, to be much more effective as voters, to already be making changes in communities, and to transition into adulthood already knowing what empowerment looks like.” Kagari and more than 25 of his fellow students have been putting that empowerment to work on a range of issues, from encouraging Congress to take a stronger stance on the influence of fossil fuels and renewable energy sources, to global sex-trafficking.
And Kagari is already making changes in his community and beyond. For California Coastal Cleanup Day this past September, he gathered dozens of Sacred Heart students and families to clean up the bay in East Palo Alto. “You’re more aware of what our footprints leave behind,” he says, and explains why that awareness couldn’t be more critical. “East Palo Alto is the only thing that prevents bay waters from entering our communities,” he says.
He has learned more about direct impact through his work with San Jose organization SIREN, which helps marginalized immigrant communities and refugees with legal help. “One of the sessions we had was on the intersectionality of immigration and environmental justice,” Kagari says. “When it comes to migration patterns, if you look at communities that produce the raw materials, they also end up taking the negative byproducts of the production process, which end up seeping into rivers and lakes. Learning that, to me, was very important because it showed environmental justice was very much tied to simple human social issues and is not just political. Once we realize environmental justice is tied to well-being, it’s very easy to fight for justice.”
12th Grade, Menlo School
Charlotte Acra, now a senior at Menlo, was a mere high school freshman when she founded Little Miss Code (LMC), which offers students at underprivileged schools 4-to-8-week computer science programs designed to increase their access to technology. The mission being—as she explained this past April at the United Nations headquarters in New York City during its Model UN Youth Impact Summit—is “to bridge gender and socio-economic gaps through early-intervention STEM education.” At the time, Acra was 16 and the president of Menlo MUN as well as a member of the All-American MUN team, as she remains today.
To over-emphasize Acra’s youth in association with her accomplishments belies her composure and self-assurance as a messenger of a generation that will be tasked with solving enormous and integrated problems like climate change. The self-described “people person” also founded LMC because she wanted to bring skills like computer science to others. Beginning with a focus on serving girls, the organization has expanded to include boys and has partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula to serve students at Taft Elementary in Redwood City and Brentwood Elementary in East Palo Alto, as well as with Peninsula Bridge to run a summer enrichment program.
The curricula Acra has designed includes coding, website design, design thinking, robotics, and digital moviemaking. “They have no idea what coding is when they start,” she says of the students, ages 8-12, who sign up for the classes. “By the end, each kid produces their own Capstone.” The resulting websites, movies, and mobile games not only show young students how coding functions out in the world, but also help their own educational and professional futures.
As Acra pointed out during her UN speech, Silicon Valley is the third most unequal region in the U.S. “Quality education and quality opportunity go hand in hand,” she said to the room. “Little Miss Code helps children, especially young girls, see and apprehend the world with a scientific mindset,” she continued of something that is challenging to instill once children get older. That “love of digital learning” is what LMC has thus far brought to over 200 boys and girls, 90% of whom are from immigrant backgrounds. “I see it like learning another language for our generation,” she says of computer science. “It’s becoming a skill you’re going to have to have in 20 or 30 years in order to have access to the same kind of job markets.”
While Acra has now completed AP Computer Science and Advanced Topics in Computer Science (like machine learning) at Menlo and plans to continue studying it in college next year, but still has her eyes on a global stage. “I’m super interested in going into international relations and public policy,” Acra says. “That comes more from the service aspect of what I’m doing and seeing the impact on my community. That’s of more value to me than resolving a bug in code.”