After 21 years of working with Youth Community Service, first as a parent volunteer and then 16 years as the nonprofit’s executive director, Leif Erickson has seen the youth of Palo Alto and their relationship with their community evolve.
When he took office, he led a movement to empower young people in the city to express their feelings during their most difficult times, a double suicide group 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 Developmental Assets Survey, which surveyed more than 4,000 students in the Palo Alto Unified School District.
As he steps down from his post – former Blossom Birth & Family executive director Mora Oommen took over on July 1 – Erickson reflected on the changes and challenges facing young people today. These challenges still run deep, even though the community has made great strides, he said.
The city’s young people face some of the country’s — and the world’s — most daunting conundrums: the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of unprecedented climate change, a socially and politically divisive civic landscape, and questions profound on racial and economic equality, he said. .
But young people are stepping up to try and tackle the challenges, creating peer leadership groups and reaching out and finding meaning in working together and in the community through service projects, he said. he declares.
Erickson has seen the organization evolve since its inception 30 years ago.
“There has been an increase in concern and attention to the mental health and wellbeing of young people” since he took over as director, he said.
YCS has also emphasized increased connections 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 gateway asset that leads to other positive experiences” and tackles 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 seen is a greater willingness of adults to listen to young people. The 2010 Community Development Assets Student Report Card was “kind of a shock.” he said. One of the lowest scores, particularly among high school students, was sense of community values. Many felt ignored and disrespected, he said.
“The initial response to the cluster of suicides was adults talking to adults over the heads of our children,” he said.
However, high school students and recent graduates have stepped up to speak out, and Erickson sees this trend continuing and evolving today. The city’s youth are now speaking out with strong, informed voices in the local Black Lives Matter movement regarding racial reckoning. No longer in the shadow of the issues that matter to them, they have moved towards empowerment.
“I think of the city council hearings on the budget and the threat we saw to teen services and the response to teen voices. So many people spoke candidly about their own mental health and the benefits of a story changing,” he said.
Many youth programs have helped create a sense of community, which has helped young people overcome stigma and speak openly, he added.
“Young people lead the way, adults don’t,” he said.
But Erickson cautioned against community complacency. Anxiety and depression are still prevalent among college students, he said.
“Some experts say suicides are still in a contagious state. The problem isn’t just deaths, it’s the continuum of suicidal attempts, hospitalizations and ideation,” he said. “There are huge numbers of students who report feeling anxious and sad for X weeks. These are signs that it’s not over.”
COVID-19 has added another layer to challenge student mental health and wellbeing.
“It’s very difficult. We see more of a feeling of anxiety, depression and isolation,” he said.
However, young people themselves are taking action. YCS peer leaders have developed a youth connection initiative and created a video to help students.
The pandemic may also have a silver lining, he said.
“All that frantic college rush — the primacy of getting into a prestigious university — now has a whole other meaning,” he said. The pandemic offers the opportunity to reduce some of the stress and tension young people have experienced.
Parents still represent one of the greatest challenges to 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 adult behavior that is racist. Black students have recently spoken out in various city and community sponsored forums about isolation and discrimination, including at 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 will hand over the reins of day-to-day operations to Oommen, he will still serve as a member of the YCS Board of Directors, helping to support and guide the organization’s vision to improve the lives of young people and the community through a selfless service, he said.
YCS “can continue to build the protective factors of positive service-based experiences and positive activities across generations that are an antidote to suicide and depression,” he said. Reflecting on the years and accomplishments of the organization, he said, “I have so much respect for our community and how they support YCS.
Youth Community Service will celebrate its 30th anniversary, honor Erickson and present Oommen on Zoom on Thursday, September 24, from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Anyone wishing to attend the virtual event can RSVP here.