A few weeks back, looking through the list of projects available for SAP’s Month of Service, the words 'East Palo Alto' caught my eye in one of the titles. Instantly my curiosity was peaked to see what possible needs exist literally in our backyard. The signup as a project lead, as well as the entire team recruitment and registration was made simple with online tools for every step (long live Digital Transformation, it really does make business simpler!).
On Friday October 14th, the first rainy day of the year, the project day finally arrived! I set out ahead of the team to meet with Emily Burns from HandsOn Bay Area. Emily had prepared a list of projects, which at the time did not make cohesive sense to me: trophy case, picture frames, direction signs, staff room cleanup paint and touch doors–but I assumed all would come together eventually.
Crossing the highway 101 overpass, which separates Palo Alto from its definitely non-identical twin East Palo Alto, I wondered how such a small geographical barrier causes such a great socio-economic divide. Do people living 200 yards on either sides of the highway know anything of significance about the other's life? The answer is probably not much, as I later learned from the school coordinator that the median income in East Palo Alto is $46k, compared to more than $150k in Palo Alto.
Parking in a residential neighborhood street outside the school, I walk up to the main gate of the school just as the bell rings. Students stream out of the classrooms, evenly spread along an open air corridor of a simple two-floor building. It was impossible not to notice the demographic diversity, or lack thereof, as 90%+ were Hispanic and the few that weren't–well let's just say they weren't the mix of White and Asian children I'm used to seeing at my kids’ school. Walking into the office, I was greeted with the warm smiles of the school staff dealing with the normal slew of kids’ problems– notes from parents, attending to minor cuts, and answering questions about schedules.
On the window ledge there were several trophies from various local school sporting events, and on the wall were colorful plaques with school values like collaboration or quality. I assume it was easy to notice me standing out as the 'SAP volunteer', as one of the nice ladies pointed me to the teacher's lounge , where she said I'd be able to find Emily.
Walking down the first floor corridor I noticed kids lining up to sign for and collect a small carton of milk, an orange, and a tiny bag of crackers. I couldn’t help but compare it to the 'no signature required' process my kids go through each morning, when they are dropped off with a complete lunch container filled to the brim with hot and cold food.
Further down the corridor, Emily walked towards me with a great big smile and energetic welcome greeting. We exchanged information quickly, her about the plan for the day ahead and me about the team coming (and those that unfortunately couldn't make it who missed out greatly!...:0).
One by one, Cheryl Jensen (Fengshui master), Bill Gough (Bob the builder), Oana Rasu (Artist extraordinaire), Chino Sarangi (Team reinforcement), Mark Thorp ('the Doorman'), Sarah Mohammadian ('the Entertainer'), and Sathya Narasimhan ('the Swiss Army Knife') all arrive wearing their, so very cool, '@SAP4good' printed t-shirts.
After a short briefing we split up in pairs and tackled the 4 mini projects spread around the school campus. As tasks were completed and reinforcements needed in others, we moved from task to task working, talking, laughing, and most importantly feeling a growing sense of purpose in the work we did. Initially, things didn’t feel that impactful or even meaningful but as we saw the new trophy case in the office standing under the school values, or the colorful signs pointing to various colleges the kids can aspire to, or see the bright orange painted classroom doors rather than chipped dirty ones, or see the transformed teachers' lounge neatly organized and clean, it is clear that we actually have made a difference. When the kids and staff come back here on Monday, they will definitely have a more pleasant and stimulating campus as their second home. In fact, as we learned from talking to some of the staff and kids, in some cases they feel this school is their primary one!
The dirty little secret about participating in this Month of Service event turned out to be that the giving part is actually reversed. After 4 hours on the project, starting the day full of work worries and stress, I left physically and mentally relaxed, spiritually elated, and better connected with my team members...so I guess we got much more than we gave!