Village Pantry: traditional American breakfast food, and a place to call home

STORY BY KAITLYN HUANG AND MADISON YUE, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Typical hobbies might include woodworking, gardening or maybe even starting a book club — but Julie Ogilvie is no weekend hobbyist. Wanting to start a hobby that could make a mark on the community, she and her husband, David Ogilvie, took ownership of the restaurant Village Pantry to give the Los Altos community a place to call home.

“We bought it for my wife to be productive and to have something in the community that she could say ‘Look, I did this,’” Mr. Ogilvie said.

Over 20 years later, Mr. and Mrs. Ogilvie still own and operate the cozy coffee shop, which was originally established in 1947. 

“I learned a lot from running this restaurant,” she said. “All [of] the customers teach me a lot. It feels like a home.” 

Customers also feel at home, as the restaurant is a popular gathering place for them to share stories in a warm and friendly environment. Dining at Village Pantry is like taking a walk down memory lane surrounded by cheerful and pleasant decorated interiors. The restaurant’s walls have over 20 years’ worth of photos and holiday greeting cards from previous customers.

“I think it’s [because] people want to say that ‘This is my place too,” Mr. Ogilvie said, in regard to why they decided to cover the walls with memorabilia. “They want to be remembered.”

Diane Chow, a Los Altos resident and familiar face at Village Pantry, was astonished that kids who have grown up going to the restaurant now bring their own children to relive Village Pantry memories. 

“They go there with their kids, and they like to point out the pictures on the wall,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘That’s me when I was a kid, having the famous Mickey Mouse chocolate pancake.’” 

Not only do customers create memories at Village Pantry, but Mr. and Mrs. Ogilvie have their own warm memories of running the restaurant, such as bonding with friends, filling the shop with “relaxing music” from the ’50s and “making people happy” — one of their many goals when running the shop. 

Some of the many family photos that adorn the walls of Village Pantry.

And people are indeed happy with their service –– longtime customer and Los Altos resident Phyllis Yamasaki said that dining with her husband at Village Pantry has consistently been their “weekend treat” for the past 13 years. The restaurant is also their spot for celebrating life’s biggest milestones like birthdays, Father’s Days and Sunday brunches with their family. 

“We fell in love with Julie and David and how welcoming they always are, and how they remembered our names right away,” Yamasaki said. “They started to know what our favorite dishes were.” 

Chow added that newcomers “automatically start to feel at home because somebody in there will start to talk to them.” Chow herself has made numerous friends that she continues to meet on a regular basis outside of Village Pantry. 

Yamaski added that it’s not just the environment that makes you feel at home, but the food too.

“The first bite of anything from Village Pantry, I know it’s homemade,” Yamasaki said. “I know I’m not eating something that was previously frozen.”

Walking into Village Pantry, customers are often greeted with the aroma of warm hashbrowns, freshly flipped pancakes and creamy hollandaise sauce on a classic eggs benedict. 

The Ogilvies also take pride in the fact that Mrs. Ogilvie shops for all of their ingredients personally, buying fresh veggies and fruits from local vendors in Los Altos. 

“It’s an old-style restaurant, it’s not a fancy place, [but] it guarantees decent food. That’s our goal,” Mr. Ogilvie said.

Mrs. Ogilvie is notable among her customers for her dedication and arriving at the coffee shop at 5:30 a.m. every day of the week to cook the majority of the food.

“Julie is a real trooper, [working] unbelievable hours to provide the quality of service that she does,” said Los Altos resident Larry Dorie, another regular at Village Pantry. “She’s an asset. She’s not in it to make a fast buck [and] she’s not in it to get rich. She really enjoys providing a service to customers and you can see that in her when you go there.”

But the Ogilvies were met with unparalleled challenges during the pandemic because a large group of their customers, who were seniors, could not visit the restaurant on a regular basis like they did prior to the pandemic. As a result, they faced a significant drop in revenue which forced them to work even harder to keep the business afloat. According to Mr. Ogilvie, Village Pantry only made it through the worst parts of the pandemic through the support of his other job.

The Ogilvies also said that they received help from customers who pitched in to prevent the restaurant’s closure; some customers went so far as to buying take-out on a daily basis to ensure that the restaurant could remain open.

“The restaurant is surviving because of the community,” Mr. Ogilvie said. 

Fast forwarding to May, under county guidelines, Village Pantry is now operating at 50% capacity for indoor dining, and the outdoor garden patio is open every day. The restaurant also offers a to-go system, in which customers can pick up orders without leaving their cars, giving the opportunity for the Ogilvies to connect with their patrons. 

“We now know our customers by their cars,” Mr. Ogilvie said. 

Mr. Ogilvie also noted that the customers’ excitement and love for Village Pantry is what “keeps us open.” 

“It’s our home away from home,” Yamasaki said. 

Village Pantry is open in Downtown Los Altos every day from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Beyond satisfying local sweet tooths, Los Altos’ Sweet Shop is a community staple

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL AND SIDDHANT KANWAR, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Harry Logan is such a regular at the Sweet Shop on Los Altos Ave. that the register has a special key just to ring up his order: a ham and scrambled egg sandwich with a coffee au lait.

The Sweet Shop — which likely has many patrons with a sweeter tooth than Logan’s — strives to have “something for everyone,” although there are some clear favorites. The staff at the shop have largely concluded that the Sour Rainbow Belts and Sour Patch Kids are the most appealing to kids, while adults seem to have a more refined taste, preferring dark chocolate. 

Apart from candy, the Sweet Shop also sells savory items, such as the “Croissantwich” (a croissant with eggs and melted cheese), or the “Egg White Skinny” (a croissant with egg whites, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and spinach).

Most of the recipes for the savory meals are made by Sandra Colunga, the store’s manager, and taste-tested by employees. Colunga, apparently, tries to come up with healthier food options to counterbalance the sweetness. 

Harry Logan sits on the Sweet Shop patio. (Carly Heltzel)

As Logan — a Los Altos resident of 51 years, who has frequented the shop almost every day for the past 11 years — could tell you, the property has changed hands many times through the years (he nostalgically recounted the story of when his son tried to pay for a Tootsie Roll at Foodland with a $100 bill, only to later be busted for stealing it from his mom’s purse). 

But despite the Sweet Shop’s relatively recent history, Logan said that it’s definitively the best shop that has been there, and by far the one he has visited most frequently.

Sitting in the quaint parlor for a few hours every morning and striking up conversations with anyone who is willing to hear his war stories or talk about their own hopes and dreams, the loyal customer perfectly embodies the heartwarming atmosphere of this community-oriented and historical local business.

NEIGHBORHOOD-CENTERED

Twelve years ago, Stacy Savides Sullivan and her family bought the unusual property — which sits in the middle of a residential area — after it had been on the market for four years, and renovated it before opening the doors in August of 2009. With the hope that it would once again become an active part of the community, the Sweet Shop was born.

“[Sullivan] saw the opportunity and said ‘What if we buy this property, fix it up, and bring it back to give something back to the community,’” Colunga said. “And part of that was because when she was in high school, when there would be a special occasion, she and her friends would ride their bikes here and get one piece of candy. So there was some history for her personally as well.”

Since its beginning, the Sweet Shop has consistently retained its high school employees for around three to four years, some even staying through their years at community college. One such worker, Dania Zavala, an employee of three years, said that she has stuck around because “the hours are great and the people are great.” 

The Sweet Shop as viewed from Los Altos Ave. (Emily McNally)

“[The customers] are all regulars for the most part, so we know them by name, and they’re just really nice and they take the time to actually learn our names,” Zavala said. “Because of that, it’s just like a neighborhood.”

The friendly neighborhood aspect and close proximity to school make the Sweet Shop a local hotspot for elementary and middle schoolers, with mayhem ensuing when minimum days roll around. 

“It’s fun — super fun — but it’s non-stop for a couple of hours,” Colunga said. “[On] minimum days often kids can get sandwiches and candy and the whole thing. It’s just full of kids and bicycles and chaos.”

Normally, even when she stations someone at the door to mediate the number of people in the shop, it quickly becomes “jam-packed” with candy flying everywhere, Colunga said. 

PHILANTHROPY

With its largest demographic of customers being local students, the Sweet Shop decided to give back to the community by donating 5% of its yearly proceeds to local schools.

“We’re trying to support schools, basically where the customers are coming from,” Colunga said. “So Egan, Santa Rita, Gunn, Los Altos High School and Mountain View High School.”

Every year, Sullivan reaches out to the schools to find out what they might specifically need, and the Sweet Shop donates funds to fulfill that need.

One year, as the Egan photography teacher had been taking her students on field trips to the Sweet Shop to take artsy photos of the candy, Sullivan and Colunga decided to donate money to buy the kids better equipment.

“It’s a good thing for us and it’s fun for them, and [the teacher’s] been doing this for years,” Colunga said, describing the field trips. “So we gave them some funds because they are in need of better equipment for photography in general.” 

As a family-friendly establishment, the Sweet Shop is also home to a little library, a mailbox-type neighborhood book swap which Colunga bought a few years ago and continues to maintain. She said she loves seeing grandparents take out picture books to read to their grandkids on the Sweet Shop patio, or elementary schoolers swapping out their old novels for new ones.

“It’s the most self-maintained thing I’ve ever had because you don’t really do anything,” Colunga said. “Once in a while we clean the cobwebs and straighten the books, but you rely on the community; they come and bring you books.”

COVID-19 IMPACT

As it shut down during the first lockdown in March, the Sweet Shop management has had to change operation to follow county safety standards, particularly tricky given the nature of the candy shop.

Being unable to use the inside of the store led to the end of people being able to pick and choose what they wanted from different jars, a highlight for many customers but there have been some benefits.

“Probably one of the best things that came from COVID was the amount of money we’re saving on candy because when we have the kids and it’s a crazy Friday afternoon, candy is flying on the floor because everyone’s so excited,” Colunga said. “Now, there is no wastage.”

Instead, the Sweet Shop now offers pre-bagged candy packets, which Colunga says they’ll likely stick to for the foreseeable future. 

Even without its free-flying candy, the Sweet Shop has remained a unique and charming locale embedded in the community it serves throughout the pandemic.

And as more and more people come across this endearing establishment, the Sweet Shop’s loyal clientele continues to grow.

“You don’t have to live right down the street, you know we have people from across town, and other towns because they’ve discovered it,” Colunga said. “It’s become their special little spot.”

Monday, May 10: A previous version of this article had incorrectly stated the name and ingredients of the “Egg White Skinny,” and misspelled Dania Zavala’s name. The errors have been corrected.

Getting a cheesecake from Basuku is like winning the lottery

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND MADISON YUE, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Melt-in-your mouth creamy, deeply caramelized and notoriously hard to come by nowadays, Charles Chen’s Basque cheesecakes have burst onto the Bay Area food scene. Basuku Cheesecakes, founded by Chen, has gained a cult following during the pandemic and now boasts pop-ups in San Francisco, Oakland and Palo Alto as well as national shipping. 

Barely a year ago, Chen, a food consultant, began baking for the first time as a hobby during the pandemic. He was intrigued by Basque cheesecake — a fusion of a traditional Spanish cheesecake and a Japanese style souffle cheesecake that has become increasingly popular — and a friend’s tips helped him perfect his own recipe. 

Chen’s cheesecake quickly caught on, with his chef friends posting about it on social media and the cheesecake mania snowballing from there. Chen, who had never expected a business to grow out of his cheesecake experiments, found himself inundated with orders that were quickly overwhelming his kitchen. 

The cheesecake maestro compared his sudden success to getting “struck by lightning,” from the perfect timing of starting pop-ups during the pandemic to the growth of his social media — where Chen has amassed a following of almost 13,000 cheesecake fanatics. 

Chen’s Basque cheesecakes.

Despite his rapid growth, Chen is still a “one man show” who bakes roughly 150 cheesecakes a week and struggles to keep up with the tide of demand. Dubbed the “most coveted cheesecake in the Bay Area” by fans on Instagram, Chen’s cheesecakes have spawned plenty of longing comments from fans who desperately want to get their hands on one. 

“I did not make this cake for it to be something that was exclusive,” said Chen, who recently finished a 33-day stint in the kitchen without a day off. “I’m working six, seven days a week.” 

As for Basuku Cheesecakes’s future, Chen says a permanent storefront is the next step, but he has no intention of expanding his menu beyond his iconic cheesecake. 

“I’m not a baker, not a chef,” Chen said. “I like to specialize in one product and I try my best to make that one product as best as I possibly can.” 

Chen may not be professionally trained, but he’s far from a newcomer to the industry, saying that his perfectionist approach to his cheesecakes comes from a lifetime of growing up in food and beverage. 

“My family had a Japanese restaurant, which operated for 30 years,” Chen said. “It’s just what I do, it’s in my blood, I live and breathe this stuff.” 

Despite all of his success, Chen still feels pressure to produce the best product he can.

“[When I’m] speaking to bakers who’ve been doing this for 25 years versus a year like myself, I say, ‘Every single time I put something in the oven, I’m still nervous,’ and they’re like, ‘Well, that’s because you care.’” 

Aside from keeping up the quality of his cheesecakes, Chen also cares about putting down roots in the community. Chen, who has recently used his social media platform to raise awareness about violence against Asian Americans and support fundraisers, said he wants Basuku Cheesecakes to not only be a go-to for tasty cakes, but to be a brand for people to rely on in rallying the community. 

Working with Oakland businesses, Chen was able to raise $13,000 in donations for the organizations Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Stop AAPI Hate, a number that rose to almost $40,000 with the added support of Silicon Valley companies. 

“Right now, the community needs something to bring us all together,” Chen said. “And whether it’s a cheesecake, whatever it is you know, I’m just trying to do my part to do that.”

Basuku Cheesecakes’ pick up locations: 

The Morris in San Francisco starting at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays 
Nightbird in San Francisco from 10–2 p.m. on Thursdays
The Commis Restaurant in Oakland from 2–3 p.m. on Thursdays
Vina Enoteca in Palo Alto starting at 11 a.m. on Fridays

For more information on how to pre order and frequent updates, check out Basuku Cheesecakes on Instagram.

Global art project Breathe with Me comes to Gunn, celebrating Earth Day and unity

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Palo Alto resident Irina Selva stood in front of a 6-foot-tall canvas on Saturday, in the outdoor space behind Gunn High School’s athletics fields. She took her time observing the two thick, vertical brush strokes she had just created with blue paint down the canvas — though in comparison to the second stroke, her first was considerably shorter in length.

Selva was one of an estimated 600 participants in Palo Alto’s Breathe with Me, a local rendition of the global art initiative created by Danish artist Jeppe Hein and nonprofit ART 2030

“It didn’t even make it to the [bottom],” Selva said. “On the second one, I just tried to relax a little more, and take a deeper breath, and just be aware of my breath. … Now I feel like I want to do another one; it was really nice.”

Breathe with Me arrived in Palo Alto this week thanks to a committee of Gunn parents, teachers and students. Among student organizers were Gunn sophomores Wyatt Pedersen and Katie Rueff, leaders of the school’s YCS-Interact and Green Team clubs, respectively.

“As you inhale, you dip your brush in the blue paint, and then as you exhale, you bring the brush down the canvas in one large vertical line and stop as soon as you finish,” Rueff said. “So sometimes the lines are short, and sometimes they’re super long.”

“After a large amount of community has [painted], it just shows the large amount of community within,” said Pedersen.

Pedersen poses for a photo in front of a completed Breathe with Me panel.

After Gunn parent Svetlana Gous came across Breathe with Me months ago and decided it would be perfect for the community, she took the first steps of applying for public art grants with encouragement from artist friends. As a result, Palo Alto followed New York City, Beijing and more cities across the globe in becoming the art project’s latest destination.

While the painting was — in the most literal sense — white panels featuring ultramarine blue, vertical brush strokes hung up along a school fence, Gous had her own take on its deeper symbolism.

“I really see it as a social contract,” Gous said. “The first line, for me, is signing a contract for your own wellness and self care … and the second line is really about understanding and supporting the environment that you are in locally, and then globally.”

The committee’s planning of the activity’s timeline wasn’t a coincidence: The first day of painting fell on Earth Day, allowing Breathe with Me to also serve as a community celebration of the holiday.

“I feel like it’s great not just to celebrate [Earth Day], but to make a statement about it,” Selva said.

Beyond the blue painting, the Breathe with Me site offered participants and passersby both a “poetry tree” as well as another art installation going along with the Earth Day theme: robot statues crafted out of trash by Gunn art students.

A robot statue, made by Gunn art students out of trash, on display.

Though Hein started Breathe with Me prior to 2020, its focus on the importance of human breaths takes on an even deeper meaning now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Palo Alto resident Darren Shon’s words, witnessing the gathering felt like “being able to be a community again, not just separate houses on the street.”

With the three days of painting now over, Gous is hoping that the community’s finished painting — which combines to 400 feet long — will remain hung up along Gunn’s soccer field fence for the public to enjoy, at least through the end of the school year.

“I think that these three days of painting will [lead] to creating something that will hopefully create another life in the park,” Gous said. “Maybe there will be some spontaneous music performances, or people will just come out more into the park and do what a park is supposed to be doing.”

Los Altos High librarian and published Y.A. novelist Gordon Jack shares with students his love of storytelling

STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTO COURTESY GORDON JACK

With ears alert and pen poised to capture realistic characters in his novels about high school misadventures, Gordon Jack is a keenly observant author undercover as a librarian.

In the Los Altos High School library, he’s able to both draw inspiration from and teach students with his passion for telling stories. Visitors give Jack a window into the authentic language and characters of high school, such that he strongly based one main character in his 2018 novel “Your Own Worst Enemy” on a real-life library regular, he said.

“What [being a school librarian] allows me to do is see kids unfiltered,” Jack said. “Kids in a classroom immediately put on a [classroom-appropriate] persona. …Whereas, in a library, I don’t go around shushing people, so it’s really kind of a student space. … If I just walk around and eavesdrop on conversations, I can kind of pick up on language and just stuff, you know.”

But students aren’t the only ones with library alter-egos. Gordon Jack has published two books for young adults and just recently wrapped up his second draft of a new novel. Mr. Jack is but a humble and passionate librarian. He said he prefers to keep the two separate.

“Sometimes it’s a little awkward, you know, because they have to both check out and return the book to the person who wrote it,” Jack said. “I try to keep a low profile and not ask them, ‘Hey, did you like it? What did you think?’”

He is more interested in hearing students’ writing than what they might have to say about his own; Jack has worked to cultivate the library as an inspiring space for young writers using his extensive background in English education.

Jack started out as an English teacher at Mountain View High School then Los Altos High before teaching and designing the English curriculum at the Freestyle Academy for seven years. During his time at Freestyle, Jack took a leave to teach at The American School in Santiago, Chile, for a year.

Everything about being an English teacher was a dream, Jack said — apart from grading papers. He admitted that transitioning between schools was partially motivated by his desire to combat the unfortunate reality of grading with the excitement of new environments.

“The grading papers sort of took its toll on me, which is why I bounced around and did different things,” Jack said. “It’s really hard, especially if you have a family or an interest in doing anything besides grading papers to do anything else.”

Jack said he never developed the necessary expediency to be an efficient grader because he always preferred to study student work as he would a manuscript and give feedback. The ambitious curriculum he engineered didn’t make things any easier. In one case, his idea for students to write in a daily journal entry quickly became overwhelming to grade.

“I remember, that first week I took home 120 journals and I was like, ‘Wait, I can’t do this; this is crazy!’” Jack said, laughing.

Eventually, grading became such an obstacle that he searched for alternatives to teaching English and was grateful to be able to transition into the role of librarian at Los Altos. This way, Jack said he could continue to be involved in his sphere of interest but also free up time previously spent grading for family and writing books. In addition, he is able to lead small classes, clubs and seminars for students through the library.

He said having the freedom to offer classes with more student-directed curricula and without the consequence of ungodly grading hours was the ideal situation for him. One such class he led was a creative writing seminar during the latter semester of the 2020 school year in which students practiced developing and revising their own work as well as critiquing others’ works.

“My theory is that all of freshman year should be storytelling,” Jack said. “I think that’s going to help you be a better writer; that’s going to help you discover your voice. It’s going to help make you more fluent in writing so when you get an expository assignment, you feel like you’re just ready to go and you don’t look at it as [being as] formulaic as you maybe would have if you didn’t have that.”

Jack put this concept into practice when he taught a class for writers in need of more basic skill development. He said he concentrated most of the curriculum on storytelling assignments to challenge students stuck in the checking boxes mindset of writing.

“The traditional English curriculum emphasizes expository writing and analysis,” Jack said. “While that’s important, I don’t think it should be emphasized as much as storytelling.”

He explained that in becoming better storytellers, students become better writers by learning to apply ingenuity and creative thought processes to even academic papers. Fluency in all types of writing is much easier when you know how to tell a story, he said.

“You take those storytelling choices that you make and you bring them into expository writing and it just frees you up to have a more creative experience in that particular mode of writing,” Jack said.

So while his years as an English teacher may be in the past, Jack continues to share his love of storytelling with students in the library.

“The place where students really discover their voices, their interests, their passions, is when they’re writing things that are meaningful to them and I think for a lot of students, those are stories,” Jack said.

Jia Hiremath crafts keepsakes and makes friends through letter writing

STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTOS COURTESTY JIA HIREMATH

Jia Hiremath once sent a letter so heavy that it took six stamps — even though it only needed to travel a few streets away. The envelope, with calligraphy of the recipient’s name adorning the address line, contained a personal letter along with stickers, washi tape and other cute bits of stationery for her pen pal to use in their own creations. Apparently, the Palo Alto High School sophomore regularly sends stuffed envelopes like this to her 18 penpals.

“I go through more stamps than the average person,” Hiremath said. “I don’t know why.”

The stationary and decoration are part of the fun, but Hiremath said she finds the exchanges most rewarding for the genuine connections that come from taking time to write vulnerably. The art of letter writing has made a resurgence among Hiremath and her pen-palling peers with a new, less utilitarian take — using elaborate mail art as a way to make friends. 

“It’s something that you make and then send out and never see it again,” Hiremath said. “You want your pen pal to have a nice letter from you. I think it inspires you to write well and decorate it in different ways and find your style.”

Hiremath’s visual style shows through in her creative layering of unconventional materials including doilies, translucent stickers, washi tapes and even rough-edged pages torn from books.

Hiremath poses for a photo. (courtesy Jia Hiremath)

Hiremath said that for contemporary letter writers, the physical medium offers something no other modern communication technology does: the opportunity to connect through artistic keepsakes.

“When you receive a letter, that’s the only letter you’re going to get that looks like that and you can have that for however long you can keep it — hopefully forever,” Hiremath said.

Her interest in letter writing was first sparked when she “fell down the YouTube rabbit hole” of artists using mail as a creative medium. But it wasn’t until Hiremath was in Arizona away from her best friend for a few weeks that she decided to explore this interest. The friends communicated by letter because it felt like the most personal way to stay in touch, Hiremath said.

“It’s a really cool way to expand your relationship with someone or make genuine relationships if you’re open,” Hiremath said.

Once Hiremath discovered her passion, she sought to find more pen pals through Instagram, which is how she has gotten in touch with most of her correspondents. Since August, Hiremath has been writing to the same 18 people. She said that her current pen pal pool size strikes the right balance of being personal and broad. Hiremath said she has been surprised at the depth and authenticity of pen pal connections she has made through Instagram.

“I think everyone has been really nice because [with] letter writing, it’s really easy to express our feelings and be vulnerable,” she said. “I’ve only had good interactions and met kind people.”

Hiremath said she often finds pen pals easier to confide in than friends with whom she goes to school or shares social circles in person because she knows her letter will remain between the two of them. Her secrets are most certainly safe 6,000 miles away with her most distant correspondent, who lives in Hungary.

Hiremath has met many different types of people through her fascination with letters, and she said much of the magic comes from seeing her different pen pals’ personalities shine through visually. Down to the handwriting, everything knits together to create the quality of “realness” in a letter that allows deep bonds to form in the exchange of just a few pages.

“It’s kind of developed into something new,” Hiremath said. “With the rise of technology … letter writing has been turned into more of an art form than before and I think that’s really cool.”

Gunn senior founds virtual music lessons nonprofit, instructing over 900 students

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

When Gunn High School senior Julia Segal was devastated by the sudden cancelation of her band’s first recording session due to the pandemic, she turned to another way to utilize her passion for music.

QuaranTunes, which Segal founded just weeks later, is described by the singer-songwriter and keyboardist as an online platform that “connects teen musicians and artists with children in order to provide virtual music lessons.”

Today, the student-led nonprofit has over 300 volunteer teachers instructing an estimated 900 students from across the globe. Lessons are offered on anything from specific instruments, to otherwise difficult-to-find courses like film scoring or music production. Beyond music, QuaranTunes also offers lessons in “almost anything you can think of that counts as art.”

While there’s never a mandatory fee to take a QuaranTunes lesson, the suggested donation in place is $20 per class. Thanks to these donations by parents, QuaranTunes has raised $55,000 for various charitable causes since its founding last March. 

“Our charity right now is the Save The Music Foundation,” Segal said. “It’s a nationwide foundation that has helped millions of kids in public schools get their first access to music education through public school music programs.”

Palo Alto High School sophomore Ajin Jeong is among the hundreds of QuaranTunes teachers that volunteer their time for its cause. Jeong — who in addition to teaching also serves as a board member — said there are unique aspects to teaching while being a student of music herself. 

“Since I’m younger, I can relate to my students better,” Jeong said. “One of them’s seven and one of them is twelve, so I can relate to what place they’re in right now. I think that helps me as a teacher.”

Fellow Paly sophomore Divya Mathur was introduced to the organization through Jeong. With more than enough time on her hands due to the shelter-in-place order last summer, she joined QuaranTunes as a piano teacher. Today, Mathur teaches seven students after school throughout the week.

“Usually with my younger students who are six, seven or eight, it’s a very direct lesson,” Mathur said. “I’ll have my computer on top of my keyboard, and then usually they can play by ear, and I’ll kind of direct their hands and their fingers.”

Mathur said her favorite part of teaching music is seeing students grow, and that one student of hers in particular showed immense growth not long after starting their weekly piano lessons.

“I gave [Für Elise] to her, and two weeks later, she was finished with it. She had perfected it,” Mathur said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This eight year old girl — in two weeks, in free lessons, had never played before — was able to play Für Elise’ … I was so happy.”

Segal also teaches, despite her main responsibilities being to oversee QuaranTunes as a whole. Though her vocal and piano student started as a complete beginner to music, Segal chose to skip past the basics of piano — scales and learning Hot Cross Buns — to skills she felt were more relevant for a pop singer-songwriter like the student hoped to become.

“Now she can play and write and sing her own songs. I’ve seen her write songs about COVID and how lonely it’s made her …, how annoying her brother is, and she just kind of really lets her emotions out,” Segal said. “That’s what songs have been for me; they’ve always been a diary for me to express my emotions.”

Beyond one-on-one lessons, QuaranTunes offers a virtual summer camp run by volunteers as well as master classes taught by professional musicians — like world class pianist Lara Downes — both of which, similarly to lessons, are completely free, virtual and open to the public. 

“The whole mission is to spread music,” Mathur said. “That’s how Julia started it; she just found her little sister bored, she wanted to spread music to her, and she spread it to everyone else … QuaranTunes is really important to me because it spreads the opportunity for children to find what they’re passionate about.”

In preparation for Segal’s forthcoming departure to university, the leadership staff of QuaranTunes recently set out to streamline the organizational system of the student-run organization, evenly spreading out work from the Chief Executive Officer to board members like Jeong.

Now, Segal is sure that with the organization’s dedicated and passionate teachers and leaders, QuaranTunes is in great hands.

“I’m 100% sure it’s going to last for many, many, many years,” Segal said.

Journalist, author, citizen scientist; Mary Ellen Hannibal to deliver talk at Los Altos History Museum

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN, PHOTOS COURTESY MARY ELLEN HANNIBAL

When picking up a book titled “Evidence of Evolution,” one would hardly expect that the same author also wrote “Good Parenting Through Your Divorce.” But as a freelance author, and later a citizen scientist, Mary Ellen Hannibal just took the jobs she could get.

“When you’re a freelance writer, you kind of have to take all the jobs,” Hannibal said. “And so I wrote all kinds of things.” 

Hannibal began her career writing for various Bay Area nonprofits, creating newsletters, articles and books. While writing newsletters for the San Francisco Botanical Garden in the early 2000s, Hannibal discovered a love for botany, and all things science.

“I grew to really love the subject [at the Botanical Garden], and learning about the different plants, understanding their origins, and really learning about science,” Hannibal said. “Because science has its beginnings, in many ways, in botanical research.”

After spending nearly a decade with the Botanical Garden, Hannibal wrote her first scientific book. Published in 2009, Hannibal wrote “Evidence of Evolution” while she was researching for a separate project for the San Francisco Botanical Garden at the California Academy of Sciences in 2007.

Hannibal at the Pillar Point tide pools (courtesy Mary Ellen Hannibal)

“As I was researching this book about how life begins, [scientists at the academy] were telling me that we were in an extinction crisis, and that life was ending prematurely for a lot of species,” Hannibal said. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?’ I need to find out, I need to tell the story.”

After learning about the so-called “sixth extinction,” Hannibal knew that she needed to dig deep and speak out.

So in 2012, Hannibal published “The Spine of the Continent: The Race to Save America’s Last Best Wilderness.” This book focused on the emergence of conservation biology, a relatively new discipline focusing on the confluence of how nature works and how humanity can protect it.

“Even Yosemite or Yellowstone, they were only protected because they were beautiful,” Hannibal said. “At the time nobody was really understanding that we need to have healthy interactions going on in nature, even if it’s not in our own backyards, in order to create a living biosphere for all lifeforms.”

During her research for “Spine of the Continent,” Hannibal first got exposed to the world of citizen science, when she noticed that a common factor among many successful scientific research projects is the involvement of the general public collaborating with professional scientists, hence the name “citizen” science.

One of the first times Hannibal observed citizen science in action was with a group tracking jaguar movements through Arizona and Mexico. The jaguar, being an endangered species, was entitled to a protected habitat space provided by the government. 

“You have to provide critical habitat so those species have a place to live, but where should that be?” Hannibal said. “In Arizona, there are many mountain ranges that have appropriate habitat, so which one should we choose? So we asked, well, where do the jaguars want to go?”

The answer was found through a network of citizen scientists, who learned how to track jaguar prints, and were able to provide data to show where a critical habitat should be located. 

Similarly, citizen scientists all across the United States are contributing animal movement data to ongoing projects to find appropriate locations for highway overpasses and underpasses.

“In order to understand where the animals want to go, we need a lot of data,” Hannibal said. “And really the only way to get that data is to have help from a lot of people. So that’s where citizen science comes in.”

Just a decade or two ago, decentralized data collection required citizen scientists to do extensive research and independently collect and corroborate data. But today, with the advent of digital tools, anyone can be a citizen scientist by just snapping a photo with a cell phone.

“Before, you would have gone out to the field with a little GPS machine and a camera and you [wrote] down where you saw something,” Hannibal said. “Now you just take a picture with your phone and upload it and people can confirm what is in the photo and now it is available to be used by scientists everywhere.”

The largest app that is used for citizen science today is called iNaturalist. The app allows users to upload a photo, at which point software will identify its contents and after it is confirmed by other users, that data point can be used in national biological studies.

“Academic science has tended to be very much old white men, very exclusive and dismissive,” Hannibal said. “But that is really changing. Science today matters less on one individual genius coming up with a great idea, and much more on collaboration.”

Hannibal will be delivering a virtual talk at the Los Altos History Museum on Thursday, April 22 about the history of citizen science and its impact on monarch butterflies, as well as climate change. Register for the free event here.

Teenage entrepreneur Ayaka Sonehara creates small jewelry business, Buttercupbeaut.

PRODUCED BY KAITLYN HUANG AND MADISON YUE

Founded by teenager Ayaka Sonehara in August of 2020, jewelry business Buttercupbeaut. is notable for its unique design, attention to detail and personalized packaging. Sonehara’s business is currently donating $3 for every order to RAINN, an organization that aims to help sexual assault survivors.

West Currier escapes from life’s distractions into an igloo

STORY AND PHOTO BY DANA HUCH

Along with the actual pandemic has come a consequential pandemic of widespread ennui, excuses and unenthusiastic throwing-ins of the towel. But surrendering to the opportunity for a socially acceptable laze-cation was never an option for West Currier.

When the Woodside Priory School junior isn’t busy with school, it’s hard to guess where he can be found. Possibly doing a 16-pitch rock climb up the Grand Teton in Wyoming and perching 3,000 feet above the Jackson Hole Valley on a rocky precipice. Perhaps belaying over chasms thousands of feet deep. Or maybe building an igloo-like structure and living in it for three days, which was his most recent adventure.

“I just think it’s healthy [to spend time in nature],” Currier said. “We’re — especially now — on computers all day and we’re very distractible. It’s nice to take a trip away, get a bit more grounded, get off your phone and just have a good time in other ways.”

Currier has been camping with his parents and three brothers for as long as he can remember. The whole family has an appreciation for nature escapes from the usual fast pace of school and work life, but snow camping is another beast. Persistence in the face of soaking socks and gloves is something West, his brother Cal and father, James, have in common.

West Currier is pictured on his journey to the campsite. (courtesy West Currier)

In February, the three Curriers set out for their third annual three-day snow camping trip in an area near Kirkwood Ski Resort, just south of Lake Tahoe. The family woke up at 3 a.m. to drive to the snow then hiked out with homemade sleds carrying equipment, arriving at the site just in time to construct their shelter before dark. 

By venturing into the wilderness (not to mention without a tent) they trade out homey comforts for rugged and primitive substitutes like the igloo-house they sleep in. They spent the afternoon building a cave of snow called a quinzhee by amassing a snow bank and digging it out to be hollow. This process typically takes four or five hours.

James and Cal Currier are pictured in front of their quinzhee. (courtesy West Currier)

“The main challenge is that you’re wet the whole time,” Currier said. “With a tent you can always get a moment away from the dirt or rain. With snow camping, your shelter isn’t particularly dry or comfortable because it’s made of snow. There’s not really a break from the raw wilderness.”

But the struggles of raw wilderness are opportunities to overcome tangible adversity, which is a grounding experience. Instead of worrying about deadlines and the ergonomics of a constantly occupied desk chair, snow-campers’ minds are occupied by practical needs. Currier finds the challenges that arise in nature a refreshing contrast from the everyday noise, he said. And in moments when there are no problems to be solved, the space for stillness expands.

“It’s so much slower paced than our normal, day-to-day lives,” Currier explained. “A lot less happens than you’d expect. When you hear stories and look back, you always remember the exciting moments, but when you’re out there, it’s a 14-hour day and … there’s not actually a lot to do.”

West Currier is pictured cooking bacon over a fire. (courtesy West Currier)

This different cadence brings awareness to the inner peace reflected in nature, and Currier said the mornings are an especially strong connection point because “everything’s waking up” and there is a quiet serenity that is missing from the stagnating routines of life at home.

He recalled a fond morning memory from camping in a lake region of the Sierras.

“The sun was rising over this lake that was covered in steam and there were fish jumping and birds chirping,” Currier said. “We were like, ‘Oh God! Are we in heaven?’ … We just sat in the doorways of our tents looking out for hours.”

After some time, Currier said you settle into this mode of living and become a resident of the wilderness, liberated from the distractions of modern life.

Naturally, a place without these distractions is also a place without its comforts. But for Currier, the allure of nature life exists not despite but because of the hard work and determination it requires.

On one occasion, a storm of rain, wind and lightning transported the Curriers’ entire camping setup into a nearby lake and they had to recover it all after the storm had passed. He summed up his recount of what many would consider a disaster with the surprisingly unsarcastic comment, “That was fun.”

Days like this make him feel grateful for the comforts of indoor life that he usually takes for granted, Currier said. The nonstop obstacles of wilderness life bring a new glow to dishwashers and comforters when they return home.

Currier plans to continue taking on new opportunities to retreat into deep wilderness. He said he is excited for the possibility of a three-week Himalayan adventure with his dad and brother in the coming summer. (Monsoon season may be a hindrance, but will not stand in their way). Another ambitious plan in the works is to hike Mount Whitney (30 miles, 14,505 feet of elevation) in one day.

Currier explained that there’s something thrilling about being in a completely undesirable wilderness circumstance. It’s a different reality from slumping mundanities, and replenishes life with a reviving inhale. He embraces the unexpected struggles of rugged outdoor life like wet boots and sinking quinzhee roofs with enthusiasm.

“Part of the reason I love snow camping is not because it’s super enjoyable but because you can really enjoy the struggle of it,” Currier said. “You’re like, ‘What are we doing? We’re living in an igloo and sitting on snow benches!’ It’s kind of crazy and you just enjoy the craziness and enjoy the hardship.”