After 21 years of working with Youth Community Service, first as a parent volunteer, then for 16 years as the executive director of the nonprofit organization, Leif Erickson saw the youth of Palo Alto and their relationship with their community evolve.
When he took over the role, he led a movement to empower city youth to express their feelings during their toughest times, a cluster of double suicides that began in 2009. Through programs of volunteer service and leadership building, he and Youth Community Service (YCS) helped city students find meaning and connection in a community where they felt isolated and ignored – feelings they had reported in the 2010 Development Assets Survey, which surveyed more than 4,000 students in the Palo Alto Unified School District.
As he retires from his post – former executive director of Blossom Birth & Family Mora Oommen took office on July 1 – Erickson reflected on the changes and challenges facing young people today. These challenges are still deep, even though the community has made great strides, he said.
Young people in the city face some of the most daunting puzzles in the country – and the world -: the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of unprecedented climate change, a socially and politically divided civic landscape and deep questions on racial and economic equality, he said. .
But young people are mobilizing to try to meet the challenges, by creating leadership groups among peers and reaching out to each other and finding meaning in working together and in the community through service projects, a- he declared.
Erickson has seen the organization evolve since its inception 30 years ago.
“There has been an increase in concern and focus on the mental health and well-being of young people” since he took charge, he said.
YCS also emphasized increased bonds between students of different racial, economic and ethnic backgrounds by bringing together students from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park to work collaboratively, he said.
“Service to others is a bridging asset that leads to other positive experiences,” and addresses isolation, depression and anxiety, he said. Through service projects, young people interact with religious and civic organizations, older and younger generations, and other groups that provide them with meaningful personal experiences and positive feedback.
One of the most positive changes he has observed is an increased willingness of adults to listen to young people. The 2010 student report card on Community Development Assets was “kind of a shock.” he said. One of the lowest scores, especially among high school students, was a sense of community values. Many felt ignored and disrespectful, he said.
“The initial response to the suicide cluster was adults talking to adults over the heads of our children,” he said.
However, high school and recent graduates have stepped up their efforts to speak out, and Erickson sees this trend continuing and evolving today. The city’s youth are now speaking out with strong and informed voices in the local Black Lives Matter movement regarding racial reckoning. No longer in the shadow of the issues that interest them, they turned to empowerment.
“I think of the city council hearings on the budget and the threat we have seen to adolescent services and the response to adolescent voices. Many have spoken candidly about their own mental health and the benefits of a shifting narrative,” did he declare.
Many youth programs have helped create a sense of connection with the community, which has helped young people overcome stigma and speak openly, he added.
“Young people are showing the way as opposed to adults,” he said.
But Erickson cautioned against community complacency. Anxiety and depression are still very prevalent among college students, he said.
“Some experts say suicides are still in a state of contagion. The problem isn’t just deaths; it’s the continuum of suicide attempts, hospitalizations and thoughts of suicide,” he said. “There are a very large number of students who report feeling anxious and sad over X number of weeks. These are signs that this matter is not over.”
COVID-19 has added another layer to challenge the mental health and well-being of students.
“It’s very difficult. We see more of a feeling of anxiety, depression and isolation,” he said.
Young people themselves, however, are taking action. YCS peer leaders developed a Youth Connection initiative and created a video to help students.
The pandemic may also have a silver lining, he said.
“This frenzied rush to college – the primacy of entering a prestigious university – now has a whole new meaning,” he said. The pandemic offers the possibility of reducing some of the stress and tensions that young people have experienced.
Parents are still one of the biggest challenges for the well-being of young people. They still have a lot of work to do to realize that it’s okay not to be hyper-focused on success, he said.
The same goes for the behavior of racist adults. Black students have recently spoken in various city and community sponsored forums about isolation and discrimination, including informal social events.
Erickson said he sees “so many challenges” right now. Everyone – young and old – faces the need to rebuild relationships amid the coronavirus pandemic and political and cultural assaults on civic culture, he said.
Although Erickson hands over the reins of day-to-day operations to Oommen, he will continue to serve on the YCS Board of Directors, helping to support and guide the organization’s vision to improve the lives of youth and the community through selfless service, he said.
YCS “can continue to strengthen protective factors for positive service-based experiences and positive activities across generations that are an antidote to suicide and depression,” he said. Looking back on the years and accomplishments of the organization, he said: “I have so much respect for our community and the way they support YCS.”
Youth Community Service will celebrate its 30th anniversary, honor Erickson and present Oommen on Zoom on Thursday, September 24, from 5:30 pm to 6:30 pm Anyone wishing to attend the virtual event can RSVP. here.