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.
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.
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.”
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 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 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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
As one of the first bakeries in the Bay Area to mill its own flour, Manresa Bread’s attention to detail has influenced the way it operates from its founding to the recent changes it’s made due to COVID-19.
Avery Ruzicka founded Manresa Bread in 2015 after a customer suggested that she sell her bread — which she was making at the time for the bakery component of Manresa Restaurant — at the local farmer’s market. From there, Ruzicka realized her bread had potential to be sold on its own, and her new company, Manresa Bread, was born.
Although it is a separate business from Manresa Restaurant, Ruzicka still provides the bread for the restaurant, and the focus on quality and detail that she got from working there has struck with her. Like Manresa Restaurant, Ruzicka and her employees prioritize and pay close attention to the way the materials and ingredients are sourced, making it a predominant part of their ideals.
“The primary resource in a bakery is flour, so the natural way to do that was to mill our own flour,” Ruzicka said.
Manresa Bread has locally sourced and milled its own flour from the time of its founding, ensuring that the products it creates are of the highest quality. This focus on quality is a perfect example of the impact that working at Manresa Restaurant had on Ruzicka and her personal values.
Although she is now a successful bakery owner, Ruzicka originally wanted to be a food writer. Once she got a taste of the restaurant industry, however, she knew it was her calling. After finishing culinary school in New York, Ruzicka met David Kinch, the founder of the three-star Michelin restaurant Manresa.
She found herself drawn to the restaurant’s ethos of proper sourcing, excellent craftsmanship and quality, and she eventually became its baker. With Manresa restaurant, every single aspect mattered when it came to the experience of the customers, and Ruzicka wanted to translate that idea into her bakery.
When the pandemic hit and she was forced to close down the bakery, Ruzicka’s approach to customer satisfaction was put to the test more than ever.
“We wanted to keep our team safe, we wanted to keep ourselves safe and we wanted to keep our customers safe,” Ruzicka said. “The big question was just, ‘What do we do?’”
Two weeks later, Ruzicka returned to her bakery, accompanied by only the head baker, the pastry chef and the retail manager, only offering contactless pickup from their commissary. Ruzicka said she wanted to reopen the business systematically, in a way that kept as many people at home as possible.
Then, a few months later, one store was reopened, but Ruzicka said she tried to be systematic in the way she opened up. Instead of going back to operating in the pre-pandemic way, Manresa Bread picked through the way the business was organized and carefully planned their actions.
“[The closing and reopening] allowed us to really review our systems, our organization, our communication and our individual roles,” Ruzicka said.
Before the pandemic, Ruzicka said their process was just opening store after store, but instead of returning to that system, they focused on building back up and improving their current shops.
Being able to start from the ground and build up the bakery again gave Ruzicka opportunities to change the way the business was structured fundamentally by reorganizing positions and altering the way the bakery functioned.
More emphasis and importance was placed on planning ahead, since there was so much that the bakery needed to prepare for. It was important for the bakery to have a game plan at all times. Part of that plan was solidifying and altering the role of each individual job in making the business operate.
Those changes had a lasting effect on Manresa Bread and the way it operates today.
“We were able to come to our jobs with a new and refreshed perspective,” Ruzicka said.
When asked about customers’ reactions, she noted that they were very empathetic about the no-contact situation.
“They understood that we were kind of partners in the process of trying to keep everything safe,” she said.
Being a bakery, Ruzicka said it’s been easier for Manresa Bread to adjust and grow to meet the COVID-19 constraints, as customers don’t linger like they would in a restaurant.
Throughout the pandemic, Ruzicka has been grateful, both for her customers’ support and the ease with which she was able to adapt her business to meet new challenges.
“The pieces that make a team and a business successful and happy during COVID are the same things that were important pre-COVID,” Ruzicka said. “We wanted to be part of the community, and that’s what we’ve been.”
STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS COURTESY JACQUE RUPP AND TERA FARM
When the pandemic first hit last March, wreaking havoc on the food industry, it wasn’t just restaurants that were forced to shut down — the agriculture industry also suffered from the sudden drop in demand.
Sheena Vaidyanathan, a teacher in the Los Altos School District, first heard about this impact to farmers through the grapevine, before subsequently ordering her vegetables directly from a local farmer. This purchase was to show him support through the uncertainty of the unfolding pandemic — and also for some fresh kale.
The result was her founding of Tera Farm just weeks later, a nonprofit that aims to directly support local farmers by publicizing and marketing their produce to consumers, cutting commercial grocery stores completely out of the picture. By operating with a volunteer-run team, Tera Farm ensures that farmers receive 100% of the profits.
“When they sell [produce] to a wholesaler, these small farmers don’t get the money right away. They get it in six weeks to eight weeks after everything has sold,” Vaidyanathan said. “They are now able to get the money right away. … We sell it in the store and the credit card payments get posted into their bank account.”
When the Tera Farm store is open between Monday afternoon and Wednesday evenings, customers can place orders from a wide selection of locally grown and fully organic vegetables, fruits and herbs.
“[Customers] get to pick exactly what they want. So if they want three bunches of carrots and two pounds of onions, they can get exactly that,” Vaidyanthan said.
Picking up a “farm box” order starts on Saturday mornings at the customer’s choice out of 28 available “neighborhood sites” — houses of volunteers located throughout the Bay Area from Berkeley to Carmel.
Vaidyanathan said she hadn’t expected to enter this type of work, but is now able to apply her expertise in education to her role in the organization.
“As a teacher and educator, I want people to understand where food comes from, so on Wednesdays, I send a newsletter,” Vaidyanathan said. “What does it mean when you grow organic? What happens to the weeds? What are they allowed to put on [organic produce]?”
Through involvement with the nonprofit Kitchen Table Advisors and prior experience gardening as a hobby, Vaidyanathan had “always had a passion” for learning about farming and produce.
“We, living in California, are so fortunate,” Vaidyanathan said. “We have all this amazing produce that can grow right here … but we personally don’t have a connection to it. … We think we just walk into a grocery store, and there is the food.”
For Vaidyanathan, the opportunity to take action on this followed 24 bunches of kale arriving on her doorstep last March — the initial order from a local farmer. When she assessed them to be far too much for just her household, Vaidyanathan decided to reach out to friends offering to share. They soon couldn’t get enough.
“Because of the pandemic, people didn’t want to go to the grocery store,” Vaidyanathan said. “And here was something that was literally grown one hour away from them. [My friends] had never seen something that fresh.”
After a couple weeks of acting as the middleman — ordering from the farmer and distributing a steadily increasing quantity of their produce to friends — Vaidyanathan simply “couldn’t stop.”
“Thankfully it was spring break, so I used my spring break to make the ecommerce website and I got it all going,” Vaidyanathan said.
Thanks to the exposure she credits to almost exclusively word-of-mouth advertising within the community, Tera Farm has made a heartwarming, positive impact on farmers and community members alike since it was founded close to one year ago.
The nonprofit collaborates with two main farmers, Maria and Bertha; as a result of the cash flow Tera Farm made possible, the latter was able to complete her long term project of building a greenhouse, allowing her to “move forward in her farming career.”
Vaidyanathan described another story in which neighbors of several years spoke for the very first time upon one inquiring where “all those boxes” — Tera Farm’s weekly farm boxes — had come from.
“Neighbors are talking to neighbors, neighbors are talking to farmers, farmers are also talking to other farmers now because they are trying to help each other with this,” Vaidyanathan said. “I think [Tera Farm] is a really wonderful community.”
After all, this nonprofit’s mission is right there in its name. “Tera” is a Hindi word that translates to “your.”
“The hope is that each one of us will consider that this is your farm,” Vaidyanathan said. “You are involved and invested in where your food comes from.”
When the school board approved a reopening plan after both of Palo Alto High School’s student representatives voted ‘nay,’ a group of Palo Alto teens realized that students don’t have a voice in local politics unless they can vote.
“It seemed like [student] demands sort of went unheard and we wanted students to have a voting power in our local government, because that’s really what pushes these elected officials to make change,” Paly senior and Vote16 Vice President Anotnia Mou said.
Vote16 Palo Alto, a chapter of the national Vote16 USA organization, is working to get 16-year-olds the right to vote in Palo Alto City Council elections and to encourage civic education in schools.
WHAT THEY DO
Vote16 PA is currently focusing their efforts on granting 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in city council elections.
“[Students] are just as affected by the decisions that city council makes on transportation, affordable housing, safety policies and climate change … than the other public,” Paly senior and Vote16 PA President Rachel Owens said.
According to the Vote16 website, to lower the voting age, the organization can either pursue a citizen’s initiative petition, which entails getting 6% of Palo Alto voters to sign, or the city council must vote to place this initiative on the ballot.
The group is pushing for a citizen’s initiative petition for the November 2022 elections that they will release in the summer.
Initially, Vote16 aimed to win 16-year-olds the right to vote in school board elections, but the red tape and legalities associated with the state’s jurisdiction has made it much more complicated, so the team is focusing on city council elections.
“So, if we’re talking beyond local, [lowering school board voting age] is kind of our next thing that we are focused on,” Paly senior and Vote16 PA Secretary Jonothan Sneh said.
WHY THEY DO IT
Founded by several passionate Paly and Gunn students, the group recognizes that the only way for youth to have their voices heard in local politics is through enfranchisement.
“We wanted students to have a voting power in our local government because that’s really what pushes these elected officials to make change,” Mou said.
“There is this voice from students, but it’s just not being heard,” Sneh said. “We have different opinions, different needs, and we’re also important members of the community.”
The Vote16 website outlines three arguments for why Palo Alto ought to lower the voting age: improving democracy and voting habits, improving civic education and engagement, and representation for youth in politics.
According to Mou, evidence shows that when students start voting younger, they are more likely to continue voting as adults.
“If people start voting at 16, they’re able to do so in that stable environment with their parents in their community,” Mou said. “That makes it much more likely that they’ll become adjusted to voting and once they leave their home … they’ll likely continue voting.”
In addition to working to lower the voting age, the group has also held events to encourage civic engagement among students and teenagers.
Owens, Mou and Sneh said the event they are proudest of is a city council candidate forum that they arranged with various other political student groups. The panel allowed students to ask their potential representatives questions about policies that might pertain to them.
“I think that that was something that was sort of unprecedented for city council elections and we got the opportunity to watch city council members try and appeal to youth in the community,” Owens said. “I think that that’s an important next step toward allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.”
Vote16 also works as student liaisons for the League of Women Voters to hold informational sessions to register 18-year-olds to vote in elections and to educate them on local policies.
“These events really teach people the logistical and practical aspects of voting compared to their civics and U.S history classes which are much more conceptual,” Mou said.
Owens echoed this idea, saying civic education is vital to having an informed group of young voters.
“There’s so much going on all the time and I think it’s quite easy to become desensitized to it,” Owens said. “I also think that the media tends to be pretty polarized, so sometimes it’s difficult to get an idea of what the facts are with regards to local issues.”
The group has spoken to several history teachers in their district in hopes of implementing more education on local issues and voting into civic curriculums, according to Mou, but is postponing more official talks about their implementation plan for when teachers get settled in with distance learning or when schools go back in person.
“What teachers bring into their classroom is pretty flexible, so it’s really up to the individual teachers,” Mou said. “We’re hoping to have that conversation with teachers this semester or next.”
Sneh said that Vote16 is dedicated to ensuring that, if the bill were to pass and 16-year-olds could vote, they are educated about what they are voting on.
“It makes you way more engaged in civics in general and having that in the classroom as an introduction pushes people to get more involved,” Sneh said. “This is knowledge that’s easy to access.”
“Our hope is that lowering the voting age and civics education can kind of go hand in hand,” Owens said. “If during that civics education they have the opportunity to learn about local issues and local elections, then they can be more informed when they’re making those voting decisions.”
Aside from working with other Vote16 chapters in the Bay Area, the group has formed bonds with various community leaders that they call their “Community Coalition” — a group of school board members, PTSA presidents and other community members who advise the team members of Vote16.
“We have no experience with ballots and stuff like that, so they may advise us in that capacity on how to write resolution with official language and that kind of thing,” Sneh said.
“Talking to them about Vote16 and also about other issues has been really empowering and really inspiring,” Owens said. “I really want to extend that opportunity to any student who’s interested and give them the opportunity to talk directly to their representatives.”
In the near future, Vote16 plans to use these connections to organize a monthly Q&A with city council members and youth.
“You may have this really intricate and seemingly amazing plan in your head about how things are going to proceed and it will never go that way,” Owens said. “But if you’re able to be flexible and to keep figuring out how to move the campaign forward, you will find success.”
While walking by Ava’s Downtown Market, a passerby likely wouldn’t give it a second look. But step past the red awning, and customers are met with a unique array of mainly local products not found in any big chain grocery stores.
Owner and operator Juan Origel founded Ava’s almost 10 years ago, with the intent of being a “startup that helps other startups.”
“In order for you to get into a big chain store, like a Safeway or Costco or Lucky, you have to show proof of sales,” Origel said. “So the only way you’re going to start is to put the product in a store like mine.”
After people put their products in Ava’s, they are able to generate proof of sales to show to bigger chain stores.
“We try to always showcase something new and innovative,” Origel said. “Eclectic products, a lot of local products, higher-end, better-for-you-type products.”
Origel used the now common Straus and Clover milk brands as examples of Ava’s success stories.
“At one point, those were pretty eclectic-type brands that you can only find in small stores or Whole Foods,” Origel said. “But now Safeway, they have a pretty smart team that goes around and they see what other stores are doing, and they mimic them.”
Today, both brands are common items at Safeway.
Origel said it’s much easier to get a product into a store like Ava’s, whereas trying to become a vendor at a big chain store is a long and difficult process. At Ava’s, you simply have to contact him and he can showcase the product in his store.
“It’s more of a one-on-one, old-fashioned style of doing business,” Origel said.
Not only is it a more streamlined process, but Ava’s offers a delivery service called Starship, which manufactures self-driving delivery robots that can be remotely monitored on a smartphone.
“When the pandemic hit it was perfect,” Origel said. “A perfect form of delivery for the neighborhood.”
Based out of Mountain View, Starship also delivers food to employees and students upon request.
As a grocery store owner in the pandemic, Origel was able to find a silver lining as more people were learning to cook and bake at home. He said it was like a “Renaissance.”
“They had to relearn how to cook,” Origel said. “People started cooking a little bit more at home and eating at home. You have to eat no matter what, especially if you are so used to being catered to, like a lot of high tech employees are.”
An avid chef himself, Origel said he has enjoyed giving out cooking tips and building recipes with this newfound client base.
With this uptick in business, Origel has watched Ava’s thrive through the tough times of the pandemic and hopes to continue to do so for many more years to come.