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“Young People Are Leading the Way!”: YCS’s 30th Anniversary Celebration

 

 

On September 24th, Youth Community Service (YCS) held a vibrant virtual celebration of its 30th anniversary. The event was emceed by Barbara Spreng, former long-time YCS Board President, who gave a warm and personable welcome. Most of the speakers were invited to speak as a surprise to Leif Erickson, whose 16 years of executive leadership was also celebrated. Leif passed on the YCS’s executive leadership role to Mora Oommen, an experienced non-profit leader, on July 1st.

Barbara Spreng (Former YCS Board President)

Bob Miyahara (Current YCS Board President)

Mora Oommen (YCS Executive Director)

One of the greatest gifts that Leif has brought to YCS was to unite diverse communities across the racial, ethnic, social, religious and other demographic differences in the Mid-Peninsula. Mama Dee and Senter ‘Uhila, and their daughters, Tiffany and Shanna of the Anamatangi Polynesian Voices in East Palo Alto attested to this. Mama Dee and Senter ‘Uhila sang a song to congratulate YCS’s on its 30th anniversary and to express immense gratitude for Leif’s contribution to their community.

Ineko Tsuchida, Program Director of Shinnyo-en Foundation, had the privilege of speaking about the connections among youth, service, and leadership. Ineko quoted from Ellen LaPointe, the former CEO of Northern California Grantmakers, and shared her interpretations of Ellen’s article about leadership that she thought were well suited to guide YCS to another 30 years and beyond. Ineko’s seven points included the importance of finding your own people who inspire, challenge and support you, serving others with joy to sustain the spirit of service, really seeing and hearing people whom you serve, and embracing ambiguity knowing that it is OK to not know the future. Ineko also emphasized how asking for guidance and asking good questions help youth grow and serve others with humility. Similarly, she said that having a little fear in your heart can also help youth develop as leaders. Finally, she reiterated that engaging in reflection before, during, and after serving others is also considered essential for high quality service-learning. In concluding, Ineko mentioned that the aforementioned points reminded her of Leif’s leadership and how he has mentored and nurtured her over the last 13 years that they worked together.

Leif completing a reflection activity during the 2019 Annual Retreat

Beyond representing YCS, Leif has served Shinnyo-en Foundation as one of the original three Senior Shinnyo Fellows, along with Nan Peterson and Deacon Steve Herrera. The three of them have been acting as sounding boards, thought leaders, and experienced facilitators of many of the Foundation’s sponsored programs, such as the Annual Retreat at the Marconi Conference Center. Whenever Leif attended a Foundation-sponsored program, you’d find him discretely supporting the speakers, who were often much younger than him, with an encouraging smile and a gentle nod. He is truly the epitome of a great servant leader who expresses his genuine care for others and leads us by example. His generous presence feeds our souls with gentle reminders of what gifts we have and what more we can give to others.

 

Leif discussing and mentoring a young adult at the Infinite Paths to Peace Leadership Retreat

Following Ineko, Leif humbly summarized YCS’s accomplishments over the past 16 “Learning Years.” During that time, YCS grew from a local youth service provider to a catalyst of youth service, community engagement, and social justice action. They became a resource provider across the cities, local social and human service agencies, and neighboring public school districts. Among the many noteworthy accomplishments of YCS, Leif praised Judy Dauberman and Julia Williams, two long-term former staff members, for co-authoring a youth service and community engagement curriculum called “Developing Youth Leaders through Service Learning.” This publication was one of the significant resources that Leif often shared at the National Service-Learning Conference, an international platform for students, administrators and practitioners of service-learning to share their best practices and research hosted annually by the National Youth Leadership Council. Leif has been the frequent presenter at the Conference along with YCS staff and youth representatives. At the conference, he often helped connect conference participants with like-minded others while he shared tangible tips and resources based on YCS’s successes and challenges. Leif’s contribution to the National Service-Learning Conference is one of the examples of his exceptional skill bringing together people who shared the similar goals beyond the immediate cities and communities that YCS serves.

 

Leif presenting at the YCS workshop titled “From Blues to Belongs – Changing the Narrative through Service” at the 2019 National Service-Learning Conference in Philadelphia.

Mustafa Beig, another YCS student leader, also presenting at the YCS workshop.

Justin Laxamana, a YCS student leader, guiding a breakout group during the YCS workshop. Past YCS board president Kathleen Blanchard also overseeing the discussion (in top left in black top).

Another example of Leif’s connecting years is the YCS’s student leader-led Youth Connectedness Initiative (YCI). In response to rising concern about youth anxiety, depression and suicide in the Palo Alto community, YCI was formed to promote wellness, connection and  awareness of the protective factors among youth, parents, and their communities based on Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Framework. YCI is one of several programs that Leif will pass on to Mora Oommen to continue collaborations among various stakeholders and constituents in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.

A collection of words expressed for Leif by the YCS staff was framed and given as a gift to Leif Erickson

To summarize his 21 years of involvement with YCS, first as a parent volunteer for five years and then as the executive director for the subsequent 16 years, Leif stated “one of the most positive changes I’ve seen is a greater willingness for adults to listen to youth. Young people are leading the way…”. That was what he found most gratifying.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for Leif during the evening was the appearance of his elder son, Will Erickson, from Boston. Will is also an alumnus of YCS and he shared his story about volunteering at the VA Hospital through YCS. When the Erickson family moved to Palo Alto and Will started his freshman year at Gunn High School, he didn’t know anyone or have any friends at his new school. Through volunteering at YCS, however, he was able to gradually overcome his initial sense of unfamiliarity and uncertainty about his new student and family life in Palo Alto. Will is one of many examples of YCS youth who found self-worth, self-confidence and enjoyment in service at the time when they were challenged by life changes. Apparently, Will’s personal growth and transformation gave Leif much faith in YCS and encouraged him to volunteer at YCS as a parent before he took on the executive director’s position five years later. Will summed up by expressing his appreciation for the YCS staff and affiliates for supporting Leif and giving him much happiness over many years.

 

Select slides from Mora’s presentation about the YCS’s future directions

Select slides from Mora’s presentation about the YCS’s future directions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking on the new executive leadership of YCS is Mora Oommen, formerly the executive director of Blossom Birth and Family in Palo Alto. Mora is no stranger to effectively leading a community based non-profit organization. However, as with many nonprofit organizations, YCS had to make swift adjustments in response to the persistent pandemic and subsequent economic slowdown. Fortunately, YCS’s program directors Juan Aguirre and Ashley Yee-Mazawa were up to the task. Juan oversees the programs in East Palo Alto, Redwood City and Menlo Park while Ashley oversees the programs in Palo Alto. Starting with surveys and phone calls to assess the needs of students and their families, they worked tirelessly to make the existing YCS programs accessible and meaningful to YCS youth. In addition, continued racial and social tensions, along with the aforementioned situations, have highlighted the educational and social opportunity gaps for youth and their families in the communities that YCS serves. In response to these extraordinary circumstances, Mora stated that more than ever, she felt that youth engagement in community service can bring about positive outcomes in their communities and shared her visions of the directions that YCS is heading as shown in the slides above. Furthermore, Mora mentioned that YCS is expanding its reach to elevate youth voices, fostering deeper connections between youth and social justice. Mora also informed that YCS Corps, a group of trained YCS teen volunteers, has been helping young children spend fun and meaningful time at home with planned activities through video calls. The families of these young children have been in need of ideas and activities to keep their children safe at home during the pandemic. The programs created by the YCS Corps include a dance, a sing-along, and a mini-book club where the teen volunteers read a book to the young children and then facilitate related activities for them after the reading. Despite the challenge of serving community during a pandemic, Mora reported that this summer, over 100 YCS youth were able to complete 4,000 individual projects for the total of over 550 hours of service during the YCS Summer of Service program. She concluded her remarks with a quote from the late associate justice of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a slide shown below.

In closing this commemorative evening, Bob Miyahara, the current President of the YCS board spoke. He remarked that when he felt despair, reflecting on the way that all of the YCS youth, staff and board members responded to these unprecedented times gave him great hope. He shared that he believes “the undercurrent of Americans is re-emphasizing a fairer, kinder, more just society.” Bob thanked Leif for his exceptional leadership for the last 16 years at YCS and also pointed out that Leif was “a steward of values of empathy, fairness, kindness, strength and resilience that are so foundational to YCS’s programs.” In addition, Bob praised Mora’s new leadership for helping YCS continue to move forward despite the hardships of the current social, racial, economic and environmental climates. He ended his remarks with an urgent call for continued support and investment in YCS saying that YCS will always stand by our youth.

 

The highlights of the YCS’s 30th Anniversary Celebration can be found at this link. For more information about Youth Community Service, please visit its website at www.youthcommunityservice.org.

Leif Erickson’s extraordinary leadership at YCS and collaborative contributions to the communities were also celebrated in the article published by Sue Dremann, Palo Alto Weekly at Palo Alto Online News.