Building Robots, Friendships, and Futures

Despite an abundance of cutting edge technology a stone’s throw away, Silicon Valley youth from low-income families have limited exposure to the inner workings of high-tech companies. Marginalized students lack access to technology learning experiences and exposure to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) career opportunities. The absence of technology in the lives of underprivileged youth hinders exploration of their true potential.

On the other end of the spectrum, youth from high-income Silicon Valley communities are surrounded by STEAM education from a young age. With parents and role models in technology and engineering jobs, students are overloaded with opportunities to learn skills like robotics and coding.

When these two groups of students come together with a shared desire to learn and grow, pure magic happens. For 6 weeks this summer, learning runs rampant every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at Lewis and Joan Platt East Palo Alto Family YMCA, where teens teach teens the fundamentals of robotics and coding as part of the Y’s Full STEAM Ahead program.

Liu (far left) poses with program participants and volunteers.

The collaboration came to life through the initiative of a Los Altos Botball Robotics parent, Li Liu. Coordinating with Y leaders, Liu organized student and parent volunteers from Los Altos Botball Robotics to bring equipment, expertise, and enthusiasm to East Palo Alto teens. Volunteering offers academically driven teens the chance to slow down, appreciate the opportunities they have, and pay it forward.

Now in its second year, the peer to peer program engages middle and high school students in a fun and accessible technology experience. The unique learning environment offers participants a safe space to explore technology through robotics and coding, while volunteers develop leadership skills and experience the joy in giving back.

Reluctant participants have changed their minds with heavy doses of peer encouragement. Meera Srinivasan, a volunteer and rising senior at Homestead High School in Cupertino is excited to inspire girls her own age to consider a STEAM career. “Even if they’re not feeling confident in themselves, I’m fortunate to be in the position where I can build them up. I can help them and maybe push them farther into STEAM than they thought they could ever go.”

Whether the teens acknowledge it or not, both participants and volunteers are learning valuable life skills and building self-esteem. Volunteer Andy Wang, a rising junior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, sees so much potential in the teens new to robotics that he’s inspired to push himself in pursuit of his own potential.

“I really enjoy trying to teach someone.” Ashwin Hingwe, rising senior at Mountain View High School says of volunteering. “I feel like this leadership experience is valuable because not only is it helping others, which is a goal for the rest of my life, but it’s also reinforcing for me the concepts that I’m teaching.”

Each week, bonds strengthen and excitement towards coding and robotics grows. “With robotics, it may seem hard at first, but it’s never as hard as they think. I like that we’re able to break down barriers with STEAM,” Srinivasan says of watching her peers start to recognize their own potential. “They realize they can do whatever they set their mind to.”

In addition to gaining technology skills, Full STEAM Ahead participants receive access to a variety of wellness activities, including swim lessons, nutrition counseling, and career exploration field trips.

“Although other programs offer coding or robotics, ours is the only one that offers everything,” Y Staff Loree Watanabe explains. “It’s an outlet for youth during the summer. We’d rather have them here being interactive and engaged versus being home alone or playing video games all day.” Instead of spending summer at home glued to the TV, these teenagers are learning building blocks for a bright future. Wang describes, “It doesn’t matter your background — if you put an equal amount of work into robotics you get the same result. It’s all built on hard work.”

Summer Day Campers Sharpen Football Skills, Expand Minds

The Bay Area Host Committee and College Football Playoff Foundation’s Extra Yard for Teachers joined  YMCA of Silicon Valley to offer Y Summer Day Campers a STEAM & Football Training Camp program. Campers sharpened both football and STEAM skills with 5 stations of engaging activities.

 FITNESS PHYSICS: Campers got moving to learn the 4 forces of movement.

NUTRITION: Youth designed healthy plates and enjoyed a healthy snack.

20 YARD DASH: Campers tested their speed while learning about human error and precision measurement.

HYDRATION: Youth learned the importance of adequate water intake.

DYNAMIC STRETCHING: Campers practiced measurement skills with stretches to improve cardio health.

Participants enjoyed 15 minutes at each specially-designed station, learning  the fundamentals of football and STEAM, while demonstrating respect, responsibility, sportsmanship, and teamwork.

We Love Summer Day Camp!

As summer comes to a close, Y campers share the 2018 Summer Day Camp experiences they will treasure forever.



“We climb the rock wall and then we do other activities and we learn how to tie knots.” –Abigail 








YMCA camp is fun and I get to explore different activities and I just enjoy being here and making new friends.”  — Andrew 






“I love YMCA camp because you do fun activities like playing and rock-climbing.  I made a new friend in coding camp. I’m going to tell my mom that I love camp and I want you to sign me up next year.” — Angeliqua  






The counselors are nice and they are always really helpful. Right before I get picked up you get to choose where you play. I choose the small field, and I get to build a fort with all my friends. ” — Craig 






“I made new friends. We just started to play together at camp and we got along really well.” — Aspen






“I like doing things that I can’t do at home, like projects, and rock-climbing.” — Kiera





“The counselors let you do fun activities. They teach us to rock-climb, tie knots, and do other fun activities.” — Bennett 




Most of all, Y Summer Day Campers loved making new friends!

Just One Smile

Book Drive Sparks Smiles for Kids on Kauai

Over the past few months, families from the Silicon Valley community provided thousands of books for Hawaii children. The idea took shape when Mayrose Munar a Hawaii native and Redwood City resident returned to her elementary school on the island of Kauai and found the library’s collection of books whittled down to just a few shelves.

“I remember where the books that I loved were located and when I went back and saw that [the library] was almost empty …” devastation left Munar lost for words. “A lot of them were damaged by the hurricane, and they closed the library.”

As a marginalized youth growing up on Kauai, reading inspired Mayrose to dream. She built on what she learned from reading, to explore the world and shape her success as a leader in well-known Silicon Valley tech companies. Mayrose remembers launching her career in high tech before the dot com.

“Back then we were all dreamers, entrepreneurs with grit and no experience. We had very little to show except the ideas we brought with us and imagination to propel us forward. I can honestly say the key to my resilience is imagination, the driver behind my ability to think outside of the box from outside the box and to execute with minimal resources.”

“When children grow up poor, resources are useless without imagination. With imagination comes confidence, problem-solving, and vision.” For Mayrose, her most significant source for imagination was a book.

“The youngest of four children, I had one toy and a handful of books I shared with my brother and sisters. When I was just four years old and still learning to read, we bought books at garage sales or received them from families who had outgrown them. Sometimes we would find them in abandoned homes in our sugar plantation camp. My books had torn bindings, and tattered pages scribbled over by the previous owner. It didn’t matter to me. The words and pictures transported me from my ramshackle little bedroom to the vast world of fiction and non-fiction.”

Now a high tech leader and trusted consultant to executives and entrepreneurs, Mayrose is adding a deeper purpose to her life as an advocate for equal opportunity education. As an active Board Member of Sequoia YMCA, an ally of the Hawaii Community Foundation and Keiki To Career, and a stakeholder in the Community Collaboration for Children’s Success, Mayrose is applying her know-how to help organizations find resources and raise funding to develop programs for marginalized students.

“There are many ways we can help children in need, with the most impactful at ground level working directly in our neighborhoods with our schools, parents, and children. While we can go global, there’s nothing like getting hands-on and solving a problem near home.”

Within days following her trip to Hawaii, Mayrose confided in a close friend, Amber Hansen-Harris. She expressed her deep concern for the children of her hometown. A fellow education advocate, Hansen-Harris encouraged her to act on her desire to help these children gain access to books. “The reading level in this school is low,” Mayrose explained, emphasizing the critical need to improve the reading proficiency on Kauai.

Geographically isolated from resources, the students in the area come from diverse groups and socio-economic backgrounds. The household median income for this area is lower than the state median income and compares to the averages in Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, and New Mexico.

Mayrose and Amber hope to teach their own children about giving by incorporating them in every aspect of the experience. Starting grassroots, the families kicked off the campaign at the end of the school year with a lemonade stand. The women advertised through personal networks while their children handcrafted lemonade, signs, and baked goods. “Within two hours we collected 283 books and raised $200. The support we received on our first day was astounding!”

Neighbors, friends, and strangers dropped by the lemonade stand to donate books from personal collections. The simple act of giving a book from one child to the other created a lasting impact on everyone involved.

“One family was so proud,” Mayrose recalls, “The kids came up and showed us the books that were part of their beloved collection. [They had] hand-picked and hand-delivered their books to us.”

The lemonade stand was such a success that they hosted a pop-up library a week later. Again, Mayrose and Amber’s kids pitched in, this time setting out blankets and boxes of books for families to enjoy reading together before passing on the experience through book donations. Momentum grew rapidly, with local partners joining the initiative and collecting 1,000 books in a week and 2,000 books in two weeks. By week three, over 4,000 books were boxed up for shipment to Kauai.

Hansen- Harris and daughter package books to donate.

Leaning on experience gained through four years working side by side with the former CEO of Uber, Mayrose explains her thoughts behind the phenomena. “We treated this as a project similar to what an entrepreneur would do when launching a product for the first time. We kept our expectations humble, hustled, and focused on the meaning behind our intention. We also timed it after school let out when parents were ready to purge books their kids had outgrown and school libraries were organizing their stocks for summer break. Plus, something as simple as re-purposing a book as a gift is meaningful and creates a connection people want these days.”

The influx of books within three weeks was beyond anything Mayrose could have imagined. Embarking on this journey, she thought, “If we’re lucky we’ll get a thousand books and I’ll feel good about that.”

With a tally of 5,000 books and counting, the Help and A Hug initiative collected more than enough books to replenish the library and expand to include permanent “Aloha” library kiosks.

“When I was growing up, it was hard to get to the library. In fact, I couldn’t get there at all, which is why I was going to the neighborhood center to dig into the donation bin only to find adult fiction.” Mayrose recollects, “I thought why don’t we put libraries in neighborhoods where kids can get to it.”

Volunteers from Kauai will build the library kiosks fashioned to look like a tiny house, and local students will paint the constructed libraries. Host families who agree to place a kiosk in their front yard would replenish and when books run out, neighbors rally to add books. Kids can borrow, keep or sit near the kiosks to read a book. Presently, Mayrose and Amber are raising money to ship collected books to Mayrose’s family home in Hawaii for distribution this September. The outpouring of community support deeply moved Mayrose.

“It’s been really great to have the YMCA family, the Sheriff’s Activities League and other organizations in Silicon Valley and Hawaii be a part of it.” She shared, “They’ve offered guidance and leverage to deeply engage and bring about awareness to issues affecting our children right here in our neighborhoods.

Mayrose hopes this initiative will inspire other like-minded entrepreneurs to turn their attention and lend their expertise where it counts the most. “Children are vulnerable and at the mercy of their environments, parents, and community. When children are marginalized, they are unable to change their circumstance, but nothing is more readily available then a book. My dream these days is simply to raise awareness, raise funding, and give these kids the gift of reading.”

Mayrose expects the books will spark imagination in reader’s minds. “Reading captured my imagination as a child, and that set the stage for a life of learning. Now, we are putting that the experience in a box, wrapping it up, and giving it to the next generation.”

She continues, “I don’t know what they’ll think. I don’t know what they’re going to feel. I only hope to see a smile.”

Helping Students See!

glasses eyesight

The future belongs to girls with glasses!

About one in five kids will naturally need glasses to see the board, read a book, or participate in class. Unfortunately, in low-income communities across the country, 95% of kids who need glasses, about 2,000,000 in total, do not have them. What chance does each of these children have to succeed in school, let alone break free from poverty?

Jessica Villa, YMCA After School Program Director, realized that many students in Sequoia YMCA’s two Summer Learning Programs may need glasses. She contacted the non-profit Vision To Learn. Vision To Learn was founded to make sure every child has the glasses he or she needs to succeed in school and in life. Its mobile clinics solve the problem by bringing eye exams and glasses, free of charge, to children at schools in low-income communities.

Jessica was able to schedule Vision to Learn to send their mobile van to both of our summer learning sites in July. At Roosevelt Elementary, 11 out of 53 students need glasses, 2 of which were recommended to visit an optometrist for further tests. At Adelante 7 out of 30 students needed glasses. That’s 22% of these students needing glasses! Each of these students will receive a free pair of glasses.

glasses summer learning

Students come out of the van smiling

There were a few students that were very excited to pick out their eye glass frame and very anxious to tell all their new friends how they get to wear these new glasses! It was a very successful and exciting day!

In 2013, the Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA did an analysis of the Vision To Learn model to determine its effectiveness. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Teachers reported that the glasses helped students become more engaged in the classroom and more confident about participating in class, which led to fewer class disruptions! They also found that providing glasses in a group setting helped reduce the stigma of getting glasses. Allowing them to pick out their own frames helped encouraged students to wear their glasses at school and at home. Parents also said that the glasses improved life at home. Many explained they could now understand their children’s previous academic struggles and anxiety.

We hope that our summer learning students at Roosevelt Elementary and Adelante find that their glasses have the same kind of positive impact on their lives! Thanks Vision To Learn for providing these students with glasses and the opportunity to see!

Find Peace in the Pool

When Jaime Batiz moved in down the road from Southwest YMCA, his passion for swimming rekindled. He now frequents the pool 2-3 times a week for lap swim and plays in the water with his children.

Watching grown-up Jaime speed up and down lap lanes, making the challenging butterfly stroke look easy, you’d never guess he was apprehensive about swimming as a child. “I got butterflies in my stomach every time my mom said, ‘It’s time to go for your swim lessons.’ I didn’t like the fact that I was going  to get wet and be in a swimsuit. At first I’d just try to stay afloat.”

As attempts to stay afloat transformed into swimming, Jaime developed a love for the sport. Through formal swimming instruction he refined his technique and became capable enough to consider swimming a challenging exercise.

His pressing schedule made swimming feel impossible for a few years, until he resolved to make swimming part of his exercise and self-care routine. Now a husband, father, and full-time employee, he’s busier than ever, but swimming remains a priority.

“I feel terrific when I’m able to come into the pool and put my thirty minutes in. I feel energized and my body is ready to go.”

While Jaime swears by the physical benefits of swimming, he marvels at the soothing mental health components too. “I’ve thought, could swimming be some form of meditation?”

What he describes sounds truly meditative, “Once you’re in the water, it’s just your breathing and your thoughts. Going back and forth gives me a chance to calm my thoughts, focus on my breathing, my technique, my strokes, and the rhythm.”

While swimming offers Jaime time to self-reflect, what keeps him coming back to Southwest YMCA is the sense of community. For Jaime, the Y is a place for the whole family to reconnect with each other. His wife enjoys their fitness classes and his children enjoy kids club, family programs, and of course, swimming lessons.

“Ever since [my kids] were babies, my wife and I discussed how to get them into the water. We take advantage of family time here at the Y.” Family time often means playing in the pool together, teaching the kids to feel comfortable in the water. “As soon as they were ready for lessons, my wife and I felt it was a priority because it’s a safety issue.”

Now that his kids are older, Jaime’s confident in their swimming abilities. He knows they are prepared to stay safe near water, letting him rest easy.

“Here in California, there’s tons of water around us — the ocean, the pools…. It’s a good idea to learn how to swim to be safe in that environment.”

If you’re inspired to learn water skills, stop by one of the many Y pools located throughout Silicon Valley. Consistent swimmers like Jaime enjoy seeing new people in the pool. “I really like to see people trying. I always encourage them to keep going. Just putting the effort in is great.”

A Vibrant Spirit of Volunteerism

A vibrant spirit of volunteerism has been at the core of YMCA of Silicon Valley for over 150 years. Volunteers are truly the heart and soul of our organization, essential to fulfilling our promise to strengthen community.

More than 5,700 volunteers give back to YMCA of Silicon Valley annually, and each year the Y proudly honors volunteers that go above and beyond to serve their communities.

This year, 25 exceptional Y volunteers received honors for their outstanding community contributions through activities such as mentoring teens, coaching youth sports, serving on boards, and participating in fundraising efforts. These opportunities help volunteers enhance their personal well-being and develop meaningful relationships, while making an impact in the community.

Mt. Madonna YMCA Youth Volunteer of the Year, Carlos Martinez, and Distinguished Service Award Recipient, Laura Sellheim, pose with their awards.

Each YMCA of Silicon Valley branch honored an outstanding adult and youth volunteer at the 2018 Volunteer Appreciation Event at Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team on Saturday, June 9th. Adult honorees were presented with the Distinguished Service Award, while youth received the Youth Volunteer of the Year award, presented by YMCA of Silicon Valley President, Sandy Berlin Walker, and YMCA of Silicon Valley Board of Directors Chairman, David Kennedy.

After the ceremony, honorees and guests joined fellow members of the Y community in the stands to watch the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team play Los Angeles Football Club for the first time. An inclusive organization, the Y was proud to be the featured non-profit on Pride Night. Our Y community joined the vibrant LGBTQ community to encourage the San Jose Earthquakes and celebrate inclusion.

Learn more about our 2018 Distinguished Service Award Recipients, and our 2018 Youth Volunteers of the Year.

Channel Your Inner Child

Omer and his two younger brothers were raised learning that, with vision and hard work, nothing is out of reach. The boys grew up with rich Israeli heritage, among family and friends facing the challenges of immigration. Omer quickly learned that there is great power in building connections with those around you, and great reward in lifting others up.

Omer is a high school junior studying AP Physics and AP Calculus. Starting on the college admissions journey with an end goal of a computer engineering career, it was becoming all too easy for Omer to get lost in the rush of his own aspirations. Had his Guidance Counselor not suggested community service as a way to achieve his college goals, Omer would still be forging down his own path with blinders on. When handed the book of service opportunities in the Guidance Counselors office that day, one option stood out – Kids Club at Southwest YMCA. Reading the description, his little brother came to mind. Omer explains, “In my free time I hang out with my brothers all the time, so I thought doing the same thing with other kids would be a fun opportunity.”

Since he started volunteering with YMCA Kids Club a year ago, life has only grown busier — but Omer continues to make time to give back. Initially motivated by the looming cloud of college applications, his inspiration has shifted with every visit to Kids Club. Today, Omer is entirely motivated by the kids and the lessons they teach him.

High School, Omer explains, is a place where people make snap judgements about one another. Connections between peers fizzle out before they’ve even had a chance to form. Kids Club couldn’t be more opposite. Kids come into the club with open hearts and open minds. Omer describes, “One kids says, ‘Hi’, another says, ‘Hi’ back, and the next thing you know they are best friends, sharing toys and laughter.” Omer laments that connections aren’t that simple at every age. Volunteering with kids has inspired him to challenges himself. Every day is an opportunity to channel his inner child when interacting with his own peers — and he has a handful of new friends to show for it.

The best lesson YMCA Kids Club imparts is the beauty of being yourself. “One little boy, about 3-years-old, comes in all dressed up every time.” Omer elaborates, “He wears a fireman’s costume, and he just absolutely loves showing it off.” This little boy has no fear of judgement, no doubt that he can’t become a fireman someday, and no hesitation in sharing his dream with others.

The spirit Omer see’s in young kids like this one, including his own youngest brother, is a quality Omer hopes to nurture in himself, and all the kids he works with. A reserved child, Omer grew up shy and often afraid to be himself. An older family friend was a source of inspiration for Omer, showing him by example that being uniquely yourself was something to be proud of. However, the message didn’t really click for Omer until his little brother came along.

“Honestly, my little brother is my biggest inspiration. He is 7 years old and he never gives up or backs down.” Watching young kids approach with world with tenacity, determination, and a fearless sense-of-self has given Omer the courage and confidence to be himself, and to connect with people whom he might have dismissed with a snap judgement previously.

Omer hopes to use his time at Kids Club to nurture the dreams of every child. Most of all, he hopes to internalize the lessons the kids teach him, and use the knowledge to make the world a better place.

Giving his time back to the community has taught Omer invaluable lessons. He says, “I think we can all learn something from their approach in acceptance and generosity of spirit.”

Generations of Service

When asked how he became involved as a Y volunteer, Dean Chu flashed back a generation. “As a kid, I saw my dad volunteering at the Y”, Dean recalls. His father played various parts within the Y community as Dean grew up, serving as a camp cabin counselor, parent volunteer, and eventually on the camp committee. Y programs provided a foundation for family bonding, as camp outs, weekend adventures, and service projects were family functions for the Chu’s.

Through his service, Dean’s father instilled the values of commitment to community, continuing to serve and engage with the Y long after Dean was grown. His commitment lives on today through Dean’s continued service.

Dean’s own service started at just 9 years old, when he volunteered loading Christmas trees at the Y’s annual tree lot. He continued service throughout his teen years, volunteering as an assistant coach for his younger brother’s youth sports team. His service was tested when he embarked as a counselor on a canoe trip in his late teens. The kids outnumbered the counselors 75 to 10, but nonetheless, Dean cites all of his Y experiences as rewarding. It must be true, as after a brief hiatus during college and the start of his professional career, Dean reunited with the Y and hasn’t stopped serving the Y community since.

When Dean created a family of his own, he made sure that the Y was an integral piece of his children’s lives, as it was in his own childhood. The Y provided a unique opportunity for him to connect with his two daughters through the adventure guides program. Dean accompanied his daughters on adventure guide trips, and incorporated his love of water sports into Y programs. Dean has been an integral part of the Northwest YMCA for almost two decades now and served on the board of managers for the past 12 years.

Dean triumphed in his professional career, serving as Mayor of Sunnyvale, but his passion for service to the Y remained resolute. In fact, Dean cites his time in Y programs as a young man as critical in development of his leadership skills.

Now that his daughters are grown, Dean continues to serve his community, honoring the legacy of service his father left behind. He shared his wish for the next generation of Chu’s, saying, “I hope that my kids have seen all of the community volunteering that I’ve done with the Y and other organizations, and I hope they carry that forward.”

To honor his commitment to the Y over years of service, YMCA of Silicon Valley is pleased to recognize Dean as a 2018 Distinguished Service Award Recipient.

Teaming up for Mental Health

A  current junior at Gunn High School, Amber Fu has already made a profound impact on the health of her community. Honored as a 2018 Youth Volunteer of the Year award recipient, she has worked hard to create positive change. Amber began raising awareness for mental health when she was in middle school, following heartbreak close to home.

In 2009, a series of suicides swept through the Palo Alto area, shaking the community. “It’s deeply sad,” Amber said, struggling for words. “It’s hard to describe what it actually does to the community.” In the wake of tremendous tragedy, the community began to discuss why these deaths had happened, but few possessed the knowledge needed to prevent future deaths. “[The community] didn’t understand how to help and how to talk about mental illnesses or disorders.”

Inspired to turn her immense sadness into something productive, Amber looked for ways to continue the conversation, and turn it into action.

She began to educate herself on mental illness and suicide prevention measures, in case she ever needed to help a struggling friend or family member. By the time another cluster of suicides struck, Amber had realized the power of knowledge and awareness. Ready to make a difference, she started a chapter of the national organization, Bring Change to Mind, at Gunn High School. The club aims to raise awareness and teach habits that improve mental health. “We talk about how mental health effects family and friends, and what we can do to help create a conversation so that people feel more comfortable talking about the subject,” Amber describes.

While Amber continues to lead her peers towards better mental health through her club, Bring Change to Mind, she has expanded her reach to help the entire community, through the annual Palo Alto Community Health Fair.

For the past 3 years, Amber has played a huge part in bringing the health fair to life. Her club, Bring Change to Mind, has a booth each year and Amber contributes to the event as a whole. With each passing year, Amber’s responsibility has grown under the guidance of Palo Alto Family YMCA Executive Director Lee Pfab, and Board Member Jade Chao. Thanks to her outstanding mentors, she has learned critical leadership and organizational skills throughout the planning process.

The Palo Alto Community Health Fair takes months of planning and tons of hard work, but for Amber, it’s all worth it to see the community come together in the spirit of health. As an added bonus, she is able to take the new skills learned from her Y mentors back to her club at Gunn High School to put on bigger and better events. Amber is excited to reach more students and prevent suicides on a larger scale.

What’s next for Amber? She’s plans to study psychology and neuroscience at a top college or university, to continue making an impact for those with mental illness.