If you ever want to enjoy an uplifting moment, drop into the Peninsula Boys and Girls Club in Menlo Park. After school hours, you'll find a hundred or more kids engaged in all kinds of healthy, wholesome activities, ranging from basketball and pool to doing their homework.
The clubs are a safe place for kids of all ages, a place they can work on a club computer, read or just hang out. There are kids of all ages to talk to, as well as adults who know all the answers.
My visit Jan. 12 had a purpose: I was asked to join a panel of four judges to select a "Youth of the Year" from the Menlo Park clubhouse. Similar competitions took place in the East Palo Alto and Redwood City clubhouses, leading up to a Jan. 15 judging to select one camper to represent all three clubs that could ultimately lead to a state competition.
For club officials, including CEO Peter Fortenbaugh, this process is very important. Parents are invited, the candidates are dressed and nervous as cats as they try not to think about making their four- or five-minute speeches to the assembled crowd. On our watch (I was joined by Menlo Park City Council member Andy Cohen, a veteran of two prior competitions, and two other judges, one from the Markkula Foundation and the other from Intel Corp.,) we had to decide which of two extremely impressive kids, one a high school junior and the other a senior, were the most deserving of this prestigious award.
All the judges had read about each student's home and family, moral character, community service, school accomplishments and record and how the club had been a factor in each of their lives. One candidate commutes to East Palo Alto Academy high school from Oakland, and the other lives in East Palo Alto but attends Carlmont High in Belmont. Both had overcome tremendous hardships to become one of the top kids in the club by mentoring younger members, sweeping out the place and taking part in team sports.
The young man became involved in a gang, but quit cold-turkey after he decided to turn his life around. It was a gutsy move and he is now a model student and participant at the club.
As a senior at the local charter high school, the young woman had overcome tremendous stage fright to give a smooth presentation. As a seven-year veteran of the clubhouse, she had seen and done virtually everything, and is excelling in school, with grades near 4.0. Her work ethic at home, her church and at the club, was extraordinary. She hopes to become a book publisher after attending a four-year college.
We judges interviewed each candidate and then met with staff to discuss our choices. In a lively give and take, we realized we were in agreement and gave a slight edge to the high school senior. But we really liked the young man who said goodbye to gang activity. Maybe next year for him!
Before the dramatic announcement, each judge said a few words to and then we all wished each candidate the best in the coming year. Everyone was smiling, and it seemed like hundreds of photos were made of the big moment.
For me, it was an honor to be invited to this party and meet so many extraordinary kids who are doing great things with only a handful of the resources that most kids enjoy. The Boys and Girls Clubs makes a huge difference in the lives of these kids, who just want to grow up in a healthy environment and go on to make their American dream.
Tom Gibboney is publisher of the Almanac.