Compassion Week builds empathy through community service

STORY BY AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO COURTESY COMPASSION WEEK

Compassion Week, an annual event put on by the eponymous nonprofit, encourages local residents to volunteer in their communities with 150 service projects from Oct. 11 to Oct 17.  

Co-founder Jan McDaniel said Compassion Week offers a simple way for residents to contribute to and develop a deeper understanding of their community.

Through Compassion Week, individuals sign up to volunteer with local organizations that support those in need in a range of projects suitable for all ages: anything from working with homeless shelters to volunteering at resource centers for education and organizations fighting food insecurity. Other activities include creating teacher kits and helping with beautification programs.

According to McDaniel, volunteering causes people to understand others more, building empathy and a sense of gratitude.

“[Compassion Week is] all about getting people to learn more about the needs in the community, learn about the organizations that are serving those needs, and giving people an opportunity to have some hands-on experience,” McDaniel said.

Partaking in such experiences helps foster a sense of empathy and compassion towards those in need, said McDaniel. Although donating money is important, she believes allocating time and effort towards meeting those needs allows volunteers to connect more meaningfully with those who are different from them.

“It’s much easier for people to write checks and to donate money than it is to actually donate their time,” McDaniel said. “When you write a check, it’s important, and it’s good, and it’s critical, but it doesn’t create that kind of emotional connection.”

This connection described by McDaniel is what she hoped to bring to the community with the creation of Compassion Week nine years ago. After seeing how people suffered in her own community, McDaniel decided she wanted to be a part of the solution by not only volunteering herself, but encouraging others to volunteer.

Compassion Week started as an effort managed by the Los Altos United Methodist Church, but three years ago, it expanded with the goal of including more volunteers and organizations in their work. After receiving a grant from the Los Altos Community Foundation, the organization was able to reach out to communities of different faiths and expand their team. 

From there, the effort continued to grow, receiving grants, such as from Fremont Bank, which allowed Compassion Week to reach more organizations and diverse groups.

“Each year we tend to be able to do more projects and involve more faith communities, and more service groups that are out there,” McDaniel said. 

Compassion Week also funds each of their projects, ensuring that the volunteers and organizations they work with don’t need to contribute any money. Any equipment needed for an activity is purchased by Compassion Week’s own funds.

“We’re taking an hour of your time,” McDaniel said. “We’re not asking anything more.”

That small donation of time, with the reward of human connection and making a positive difference, is completely worth it to McDaniel.

“I felt very, very fortunate to have so much in my life,” McDaniel said. “And I knew that [giving back] really was important… and I wanted to help build that and make that happen for other people as well.”

Compassion Week is from Oct. 11 to Oct 17. You can sign up here.

How a local muralist’s work brings color to her community

STORY BY AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO COURTESY LOS ALTOS HISTORY MUSEUM

From chic, modern line art to blossoming flowers and vibrant colors, Morgan Bricca’s murals add flair, character and a sense of togetherness to the walls of her community. You may have glimpsed her work at schools like Egan Junior High School, Blach Middle School and Almond Elementary. 

A home renovation project was where the commision-based muralist got her start. She had never considered art as a career choice until painting a window in order to liven up a stairwell in her home awakened her to an unexpected love for painting walls. Soon enough, Bricca went from repainting windows in her home to creating larger-than-life murals throughout her community.

“I was blindsided, honestly, by it,” Bricca said. “It tickled a part of my brain that was just so interesting for me.”

From there, Bricca says her enthusiasm is what led her to successfully turn her newfound love into a business. Her knack for art helped word spread like wildfire, and after initially working on projects for family and friends, her customer base expanded to the larger community.

Eventually, thanks to her unwavering enthusiasm, Bricca began receiving commissions, growing her passion into the flourishing business it is today. Now, she paints in schools, companies and homes, creating paintings in a multitude of styles to fit the client and the space.

“Every client has such a different idea about what would be beautiful for themself,” Bricca said.

Bricca said her art provides her with many of the qualities she looks for in a job, including the ability to express herself, the opportunity to meet interesting people and sometimes even exercise. There are certain physical demands that come with working at such a large scale (ladder climbing, covering large surfaces, etc). But the most rewarding aspect for Bricca is the accompanying sense of purpose.

“[When I’m not painting], I don’t really feel like I get this deep grounding in myself, and painting gives that to me,” she said.

Using her art to benefit the community and make people happy keeps her motivated. Children celebrate the imaginative magic of her butterfly wings mural, which features a butterfly positioned intentionally for viewers to take pictures and pretend they have wings.

“I know that I’m using my artwork as a service, to bring joy to people … So it’s not really about me, per se, it’s about being of service,” Bricca said. “And that is so gratifying.”

According to Bricca, “the essence of mural art” is leaving a part of yourself on the painted wall, something for others to connect to. With her upcoming talk at the Los Altos History Museum, Bricca is taking a similar leap of openness, and she hopes that — just like her murals — her words will stir connection.

In Bricca’s presentation, she will entertain listeners with stories about her journey in painting, examples of her earlier works of art and anecdotes about her murals. Her message is how simply trying something new can open up a whole world of opportunities and happiness.

“‘Passion just scares people,” Bricca said. “It’s more like this quiet tug.”

That “quiet tug” that Bricca felt as she painted a window in her stairwell eventually brought her to where she is today: running a business of spreading paint and creativity.

“It’s only painting,” Bricca said. “It’s not like I’m changing the world, but … it just feels like the thing I’m supposed to be doing.”

Bricca will deliver her talk, “Adventures in Mural Painting” at the Los Altos History Museumon Sept. 23 from 7–8:30 p.m. Register here. Visit Bricca’s website here.

Local author to hold talk on the Chinese American gold rush experience

STORY BY AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

The Los Altos History Museum will host a talk by Asian American historian Connie Young Yu in a program titled “Journey to Gold Mountain: Chinese and the Gold Rush” on Thursday, Aug. 12 over Zoom.

The program will detail the experiences of Chinese immigrants during the gold rush.

Yu, who has lived in Los Altos for 50 years, is an author who writes about Asian American history. A descendant of a continental railroad worker and an immigrant to San Jose, Yu said she “always felt [she] had the background to write about this.” Although at first she didn’t include her personal family history in her work, the recent rise in anti-Asian crimes inspired Yu to become more involved in writing about the history of her own ancestors.

The reason Yu is interested in the gold rush specifically is because of how meaningful it was to the history of Chinese immigrants — it caused the first wave of Chinese immigrants to come to America. 

Chinese villages heard of Gold Mountain, or Gam Saan, which sparked the dream of finding gold for these immigrants, many of whom simply needed a way to support their family. Yu said she found the emphasis on family fascinating when studying the Chinese gold rush experience.

“When they came, it would be like a small mining company,” Yu said. “And after the first wave of people, there would be an organization … that would greet the next wave and help them … find their way to Sacramento.”

“Chinese mining the Mother Lode Country,” by Jake Lee (courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society of America)

But when the Chinese arrived in California, they were quickly shut off and restricted by discriminatory laws and violence, Yu said. In fact, one of the first legislative acts of California was the Foreign Miners Tax in 1850, which enforced a tax on all miners that were foreign.

“Who would be the most foreign people, the most distinguishable foreign people, but the Chinese?” Yu said. “ Tax collectors … would just go through the camps just to threaten the Chinese.”

Because of this, fewer and fewer Chinese people mined, and they looked for other ways to earn an income, Yu said.

“The whole stereotype of the Chinese as laundrymen and as cooks came from the Gold Rush era, because they couldn’t mine without extreme danger, without being threatened,” Yu said. “Then, of course, because of the fact that they were cheap labor, for the building of the railroad, Chinese were employed.”

Although the Chinese immigrants were critical to the building of the railroad, California legislation continued to work against them. After the Foreign Miners Act in 1850 came People v. Hall, which ruled that a Chinese man could not testify against a white man. This was repealed in 1872.  

Then came the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese people from becoming U.S. citizens. This law was only repealed in 1943.

“That created this total exclusion of one race of people,” Yu said.

This discrimination was especially hypocritical because of how important the Chinese immigrants were to America, Yu said. They helped develop agriculture, built roads and were a large part of the daily lives of white people. The Chinese American culture that came out of the gold rush is still a prevalent part of life today.

“If you go to Chinatown, it’s distinct Chinese American culture — in the food, in customs, in the various enterprises,” Yu said. “And it started in the gold rush days.”

Many parts of Chinese culture have become commonplace in America thanks to the gold rush, from the observance of Chinese holidays to recognizing the animals of the zodiac. Asian Americans also united over the shared discrimination that they face, and that unity is something that hasn’t been lost today.

“[Activists] feel this is something we could do that’s positive, by knowing the past and knowing the challenges of our ancestors and knowing how we can challenge that injustice in our society,” Yu said. “The textbooks, for so long … didn’t include the Chinese in the American narrative. And that’s why we have this opportunity to continue to uncover this history and put it back in its rightful place.”

Yu’s talk takes place on Thursday, Aug. 12, from 6:00-7:30 p.m. on Zoom. Sign up here.

Hope’s Corner hosts virtual 5K, ‘Five by Five by Five for Hope’

STORY BY CEDRIC CHAN AND AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Hope’s Corner is hosting its annual 5K event virtually this month, unshaken in its battle against homelessness and economic inequality despite the pandemic’s restrictions. 

The fundraiser centers around a theme of fives: Alongside the 5K itself, participants are asked to donate $5 and recruit five other people to join, hence the name “Five by Five by Five for Hope.”

The event aims at fundraising for the Mountain View–based nonprofit’s key initiatives, which include providing meals, showers and other basic necessities to the community’s homeless and low-income populations — demographics that have grown since the pandemic began. 

Participants are able to complete the 5K through any mode of exercise, including running, skateboarding and even kayaking, later reporting their participation on the Five by Five by Five website. Creativity is certainly encouraged: In last year’s event, one set of participants ran a trail spelling hope, while another rollerbladed backward.

“It’s just a fun kind of thing, and the idea is to recruit other people to do it with you so it becomes kind of a group effort and hopefully takes off and expands from there,” Hope’s Corner Board Member Mike Hacker said.

Last year’s 5K was also virtual, but turnout was less than the group had hoped at around 100 participants, Hacker said. The organizers hope that the extra year of experience and more participation in the event will help them surpass the $10,000–$12,000 that they raised last year, he added.

Run almost entirely by volunteers, Hope’s Corner is able to funnel the vast majority of funds directly into its core programs.

“Virtually all the money goes towards food items, supplies, bicycles, other items like clothing and the like,” said Phil Marcoux, a member of the Hope’s Corner board and a participant in previous events.

But money isn’t the only motivator behind the event. The Five by Five by Five is also part of Hope’s Corner’s effort to build a sense of community for those who have lost their homes. Hacker said the organization hopes to bring together all parts of the community through encouraging an appearance from the Mountain View mayor at last year’s event and having new collaborations with fire and police departments, as well as myriad local businesses.

Before the move online, Hope’s Corner’s 5K began as the Tour de Hope, named after the famed Tour de France. Participants met at the YMCA and competed on stationary bikes, and the event saw high levels of participation.

Following reduced risks of transmitting COVID-19 and laxened restrictions, Hope’s Corner has gradually begun reopening some of the programs it was forced to put on pause, including its showers. But while things have yet to completely return to normalcy, Hope’s Corner is continuing to use events like the 5K to bring awareness and resources to its cause.

“Just the fact that they are doing something healthy is great,” Marcoux said of participants. “And the fact that they’re doing something good for local people in our society, I think, just adds to the rewards. And the excitement as well, you know, it gives them an extra boost of endorphins in what they’re doing.”

Entries for the 5K close on July 5. Register before then at The 5K website.

Tuesday, June 22: This article was updated to more accurately reflect the details of the 5K.

Aurum and authenticity: Modern Indian restaurant strives to bring hidden gems of Indian cuisine to the mainstream

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN AND AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

No restaurant displays what the gold standard of authenticity can be more than Aurum. With a name literally meaning gold in Latin, the modern Indian establishment in Downtown Los Altos strives to showcase Indian cuisine just as pure as its namesake.

Aurum was founded in December 2020 by owner Anupam Bhatia and chef Manish Tyagi, who, according to Tyagi, see themselves as “ambassadors to Indian cuisine.” They use modern adaptations of classic dishes to deviate from the standard, popular and sometimes “incomplete” portrayal of Indian cuisine found on most Indian menus.

“The Indian restaurant scene is pretty backward because it’s a very stereotyped menu,” Tyagi said. “That’s where Aurum pitched in and tried to break that boundary.” 

In addition to authenticity, Aurum emphasizes the importance of presenting its dishes in a visually appealing manner.

“People eat with their eyes, so the food has to look appetizing,” Bhatia said. “Presentation is such an important part of your whole dining experience.”

A popular dish of Aurum, the creatively titled Mr. Potato Chaat, exemplifies that quality of presentation in a modern twist on the popular Indian snack. Going against tradition, the potato is spiralized, but accompanied by the usual yogurts, chutneys and spices. 

Working to craft a menu with dishes like this chaat in mind, each option is crafted and heavily tested before it is permanently added to the menu. For this, Aurum trusts its customers.

“[Guest] feedback is so important, and that’s how we try to change and adapt to what the local client wants,” Bhatia said. “Positive criticism is one of the most important things you can have in your life.”

From his personal experience, Bhatia believes that adapting to your environment and understanding your clientele’s needs is an uncompromisable aspect of success. Bhatia took these needs into consideration when he was scouting a location for the new restaurant. 

“[The Bay Area] has a loyal customer base,” Bhatia said. “I looked at Los Altos and people love Indian food. There’s a lot of diversity of population we have here.”

To serve this population authentic Indian cuisine, Bhatia partnered with chef Tyagi, who’s been in the industry for 20 years, and has worked at several restaurants. He met Bhatia at the chain Amber India, where they became professional acquaintances as well as good friends.

Described by Bhatia as a “damn professional,” Tyagi said his life has been filled with cooking. From a young age, he said he helped his family in preparing food for guests.

“I belong to a very ‘foodie’ family,” Tyagi said. “My mom is an excellent cook, and my dad is a very passionate cook.”

Tyagi graduated from university with a degree in hospitality and he said his journey toward a cooking career wasn’t easy. Many times, Tyagi said the overwhelming workload and “cutthroat” nature made him want to give up.

But Tyagi’s perseverance eventually led him to compete in the cooking game show BeatBobbyFlay, where contestants compete against Master Chef Bobby Flay and a panel of renowned cooks judges their meals. He advanced to the final round, where, using the same creativity and experimentation he now applies at Aurum, he snagged the win.

“I put my own perspective on a traditional dish,” Tyagi said.“I created the Saag Paneer Lasagna there. Chef Bobby Flay was making the traditional style of an Indian dish, and I was making a non-traditional style… [but my] flavor profile was very Indian, and that’s where he was lacking.”

The success of his dishes on the show influenced the modern yet authentic flavors Aurum strives to serve.

Tyagi, who runs the kitchen and “back of the house,” works closely with Bhatia, for whom hospitality is a priority. 

Bhatia’s savvy comes from his 26 years in the restaurant industry, and although like Tyagi, he struggled with the demands of the career at first, he said that the sense of improvement was inspiring.

“Your sense of learning every day, sense of achieving something every day, your motivation towards making the business successful … and your zeal and enthusiasm just keeps you [working],” Bhatia said.

He started his first restaurant, Broadway Masala, in 2013, and one year later founded Spice Affair. Bhatia’s knowledge and experience in the industry assisted him in planning for the restaurants’ survival through the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, opening the restaurant was a huge risk, but I would say it was a calculated one,” Bhatia said. “The confidence was that the product was good, and the offerings were good.”

Bhatia carefully engineered every detail of a takeout-only menu with Tyagi, making sure the items were optimal to be enjoyed at home.

Bhatia asked Tyagi to work with him on Aurum after August 1 Five — the restaurant Tyagi was working at — closed due to the pandemic. The pair had faith in their vision and worked together to create a menu with dishes specifically created to stay fresh, reheat effectively and travel well.

Starting out with only this take-out menu, the restaurant quickly attracted customers. The positive responses in the first several months were at times overwhelming, but encouraging, Bhatia said.

When the state allowed indoor and outdoor dining, they began to expand their menu, focusing more on the presentation of the dishes. Aurum facilitates a positive customer experience through their colorful interiors and casual atmosphere.

Aurum’s colorful interior.

“While the restaurant didn’t want to get into a white-tablecloth, very fine dining restaurant, we also didn’t want to get into a run-of-the-mill restaurant,” Bhatia said. “We wanted to be upscale; we wanted it to be colorful; we wanted it to be fun.”

With humorously named dishes, mural-covered walls, and close customer relationships, the atmosphere reflects Aurum’s driving principle of bringing people joy through Indian cuisine.

“Feeding people is one of the best feelings you can get,” Bhatia said. 

‘A refreshed perspective’: Manresa Bread’s attention to detail definitely isn’t crummy

STORY BY AVNI RAJAGOPAL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

This story was published by a student in our middle school intro to journalism program.

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.”