The Gift of Giving

How can we give back to the community, especially during the holidays?


Paly YCS Members Mars Bau and Ines Legrand paint birdhouses for Animal Assisted Happiness.


Packages of toys, food, books and clothes pile up as volunteers pack up gift boxes for families during the holiday season. The air buzzes with conversation between families and volunteers who have known each other for years and return each December to receive resources and connect with their second family. 

Each year, the Ecumenical Hunger Program (EHP) in East Palo Alto hosts food and toy distributions during the holiday season to provide families in the community with necessary resources. For LaKesha Roberts, Associate Director of EHP, it is an incredibly rewarding experience to see the beaming smiles of people receiving a traditional Christmas meal and gifts.

“Volunteering during the holidays, especially at an organization like EHP, is like volunteering at the North Pole,” Roberts said. “It can get busy, maybe even a little overwhelming at times, but the reward is so great.”

The Ecumenical Hunger Program is an organization based in East Palo Alto that works to aid people in the community—offering support services, providing material resources like food, clothing and gifts and advocating for local issues in the community. 

But beyond providing resources, EHP is also a place for people to connect with others in the community, especially because many have been attending the events for many years. 

“To some, this is a second family,” Roberts said. “…We [EHP] have had families here where we’ve watched their kids grow up, even did what we could to send them off to college. We are more than just an organization.”

Volunteering during the holidays…is like volunteering at the North Pole.

— LaKesha Roberts, Ecumenical Hunger Program Associate Director

Participating in volunteer work allows for deeper connections to be made within the community while enacting change. There are many service opportunities in the Bay Area at various organizations like the Ecumenical Hunger Program. 

Organizations like EHP provide material resources directly to those in need through their drives. Other organizations, like the Palo Alto Rotary, give back by supporting other organizations—donating money and providing volunteers to places like EHP.

Rebecca Geraldi is the Membership Chair of the Palo Alto Rotary and a former Paly parent. Throughout her time in the group, Geraldi has worked with many local organizations, including the Environmental Volunteers located in the Baylands Nature Preserve.

“We would go into the classrooms to help bring hands-on science programs to mostly Title 1 schools, which are underprivileged kids,” Geraldi said. “These are kids in our own neighborhood. Everybody thinks Palo Alto is wealthy, and for the most part, it is, but that doesn’t mean that everybody lives as well off as we think they do.”

During the holidays especially, many people in the Bay Area need extra support. The emphasis placed on expensive, material items during the holiday season leads some to wonder if the season of giving has become the season of getting.

“There’s a way to find balance with gift-giving,” Geraldi said. “…It’s so easy to go out and drop money online or in a store, but the giving of your time on behalf of somebody is one of the most touching and meaningful gifts that you can give.”

Paly YCS Members paint birdhouses for Animal Assisted Happiness.

Buying gifts can be an effective way to show appreciation for others, but it’s important to remember that not everyone has access to nice gifts. For senior and student volunteer Sam Yamashita, receiving gifts is a moment for her to reflect on how she can find ways to help out her community.

“I love giving and receiving gifts during the holidays, but I also like to think of it as a reminder of my own personal privilege,” Yamashita said. “[I like to] reflect upon that and feel grateful but also remember that it’s important to give back to your community.” 

The act of giving back is a way to show appreciation for one’s community. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Yamashita said. “[When you] have a community that supports you, it only makes sense for you to also support your community.”

Another organization known for its efforts in giving back to the community is Paly’s Youth Community Service-Interact club (YCS). YCS is similar to the Palo Alto Rotary in that the club supports a variety of different organizations through service projects. 

YCS has recently embraced the holiday spirit of giving by supporting the Palo Alto Humane Society, a local animal shelter. Junior and YCS Board Member Madelyn Castro helped lead the club’s recent efforts of making homemade gifts for the shelter.

When you give your time and energy and focus on driving the change that you want, it’s really powerful.

— Rebecca Geraldi, Palo Alto Rotary Membership Chair

“Instead of buying a bunch of dog toys, you can use things and give them a new life,” Castro said. “We took old T-shirts, cut them up and braided them into dog toys.”

In addition to helping out canine friends, there are many volunteer opportunities around the holidays to give back to families and communities in need. Junior Mars Bau is a participant in their church’s holiday initiative—Operation Christmas Child—where they pack boxes of gifts and essential items for families.

 “As a kid, one of the things you look forward to most is receiving presents, and it’s a really special time of year, so helping someone else experience that for the first time is very worthwhile,” Bau said.

Whether volunteering during the holidays or not, many find that giving back to the community is an incredibly valuable experience and a way to connect with others through the act of service. “Volunteering as a whole brings people together,” Geraldi said. “It helps us all share a common goal and a common good.” 

Paly YCS Members Tiffany He and Ava Shi painting birdhouses for Animal Assisted Happiness.

Taking the time to volunteer and help out organizations within the community allows people to work towards a greater cause. 

“I can remember the first time that I volunteered at EHP,” Roberts said. “It felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself, [and] that I wasn’t doing something just because it sounded good, but [because] I was truly a part of a cause and fulfilling a mission.”

Volunteering empowers many volunteers as they are able to work for the change they want to see in their community. “[Volunteering] helped me feel like…I have the ability to shape the future by supporting what I as one person can do,” Geraldi said. “…When you give your time and energy and focus on driving the change that you want, it’s really powerful.”

Art by Blair Migdal • Photos by Emma Turnbull