The Way They Roll
Services Comes Natural for Oakland's Graduating Seniors
The formula usually goes like this: graduate, start working, get yourself established, then give back to your community.
Imagine if people didn’t wait until they achieved “success” to start contributing to their neighborhood. How would the world look if people served in their communities throughout their youth, if they gave back before they achieved? These high school students didn’t wait.
Though just teenagers, these young men and women have decided to give back now while keeping stellar grades and carving a path for success into adulthood. They could be consumed by video games, relationships, fun. Being kids, no one would think any less of them, as long as they stay out of trouble. Still, they lend time and energy to benefiting others. They roll up their sleeves and volunteer. They dedicate their youthful passion to causes and issues.
When they go off to college in the fall, their beloved city will have already benefited from their generosity. These exceptional Oakland students have changed the formula. Their formula has changed their lives and just might change your world.
Shanelle Middleton, 17
High School: Bishop O’Dowd
If She Ruled the World: “I’d find a way to help the kids. They’re set up for failure because there are few people in the community to guide kids in the right direction. And I’d probably buy every shoe ever made in the world, but that’s secondary.”
Shanelle Middleton, who’s been playing soccer since she could run, broke her ankle three years ago. For three months, she had to go through physical therapy three times a week. But she had to drive all the
way to Livermore to the Varsity Sports Medicine.
That’s when she got the idea.
“We don’t have a physical therapy setting,” Shanelle said. “My goal is to start one in Oakland.”
But that is years from now, after she graduates from Bishop O’Dowd, after she finishes the six-year program at Marquette and gets her Ph.D. in physical therapy. That’s too long for her to wait.
So, Shanelle — who after finishing her rehab volunteered for six hours a day during spring break at the clinic in Livermore — is imparting the knowledge she knows already. But she’s not just sharing the medical particulars.
One thing Shanelle learned from experience: Physical therapy is hard. The mental toughness it takes to push through the pain. The determination it takes to follow through consistently. The support and encouragement it takes to overcome. Those lessons can be applied to the injured and healthy.
She uses them with the 14-and-under squad she coaches for the Grass Valley Soccer Club, a group of boys she’s coached since they were 8. She uses them when she teaches youngsters how to swim at DeFremery Pool in West Oakland. She uses them when she tutors O’Dowd freshmen and sophomores in math and science, and middle school students through the Aim High tutoring program. She uses them when she volunteers at the East Oakland Youth Development Center.
“They don’t have that person in their life to really push them forward, get [them] through the obstacles they face every day,” Shanelle says. “It’s a mental thing. You’ve got to learn how to push through. Many kids in Oakland don’t have that, and I want to give it to them.”
Harrison Lee, 17
High School: Head Royce School
College(s): Princeton or UC Berkeley
If He Ruled the World: “Social culture would embrace supportiveness and cooperation rather than endorse selfishness and a “me” mentality. However, I don’t quite like the idea of ruling the world. If that ever happened, I would probably establish a fair political system and return power to the people.”
The drive from school to home, the change in scenery from the pristine hills to the desperate streets, told a story that didn’t sit well with Harrison Lee. But instead of averting his eyes, he soaks it up. Instead of pledging to do something, he does something.
“Being connected to the community throughout your life is very important,” Harrison says.
That is exactly what Harrison is doing. Now.
The last four years, he’s tutored at Sequoia Elementary School, helping elementary kids learn how to read, write, work on a computer and do basic math. This past November, he put on a school supplies drive to benefit Sequoia’s after-school program, which was suffering from budget cuts.
Harrison also is active on Head Royce’s Globalization Committee, and one important element he’s supporting is for community service to play a bigger role in the school’s curriculum.
Harrison has a 3.95 GPA and says he’s narrowed his options down to Princeton or UC Berkeley. Such accomplishments are noteworthy, but if you ask Harrison about what he’s most proud of, he’s more likely to bring up the fourth-grader he’s befriended at Sequoia.
“It’s a very touching topic,” Harrison says. “His mother died when he was pretty young. So socially and academically I’ve been a friend for him, being there for him. I feel really honored that I can fulfill such a big role. I don’t consider myself particularly special. But it definitely gives me a sense of purpose and a sense of pride that I can help in my community.”
Brett Miller, 18
High School: The College Preparatory School
College(s): Georgetown, Notre Dame, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia
If He Ruled the World: “I would strive to be a benevolent leader.”
Brett Miller is no stranger to that warm, tingly feeling that comes with helping others. But as one who regularly seeks to
aid others, Brett has come to discover a different, better, perk for his service.
“It’s a two-way street,” he says. “There have been numerous occasions where I’ve helped people, and I’ve ended up receiving more from them than they’ve received from me. And you learn so much about yourself.”
Brett is benefiting ridiculously then. As the head honcho of community service at College Prep, Brett coordinates all of the school’s outreach efforts and off-campus projects.
He goes with the freshman to do maintenance at Frog Park, painting, cleaning and planting flowers. Twice a year, he maintains trails at Point Reyes, once with the sophomore class and once with the senior class. With the juniors, he serves the elderly at the Chaparral House, an assisted-living center in Berkeley.
That’s his favorite. The students get to cook for, garden with and chat up the residents. It was at the Chaparral House that Brett came across his greatest example of how much the pleasure is all his when he serves.
He was pushing around Mae, a 93-year-old resident who didn’t talk. Still, Brett kept the conversation going. A passionate gardener, he found himself toiling in the dirt and explaining to Mae. Then, out of nowhere, she spoke.
“Next thing I know,” Brett says, “she started spilling all this plant knowledge. Turns out, she was a former professor of botany at Cal. She was one of the first female professors at Cal and loved plants as much as I do. She started giving me all this amazing knowledge and wisdom.”
See, a two-way street.
Tatiana Rosenblatt, 17
High School: The College Preparatory School
College(s): Early acceptance to Stanford
If She Ruled the World: “I would create more after-school programs and more summer programs for kids who don’t have the support network I have — all of the opportunities and all of the friends and all of the family love.”
Every other Saturday, Tatiana Rosenblatt, and the group of about 10 girls she leads, hit the grocery store. After shopping, they take to the kitchen and cook.
Over the school year, the menu has included tacos, enchiladas, homemade soup and lasagna. Cake and ice cream is a staple dessert. Whatever they make, it amounts to a glorious feast. Just ask the residents of a berkeley women’s shelter. After all, the biweekly meal is for them.
“I like it because it’s not your regular soup kitchen,” says Tatiana, who also mentors underprivileged middle-school kids from Oakland in The Partners Program. “The first time I went there, it was a big shock. There is also a lot of fun. It definitely has its sadness. It’s obviously not a great living facility. But as scary as it is, it’s definitely a great experience. They love to watch movies, laugh and tell jokes. We love to watch movies, laugh and tell jokes. It’s a lot of fun.”
She says she was shocked to learn some of the woman come from privileged situations such as her own. Tatiana says the experience amplified her appreciation and sharpened her focus. She was accepted early into Stanford, which will be followed by medical school. She’s hoping to work for Doctors Without Borders.
What inspired her to do that? While doing an internship for a stem cell lab at USF, she went to a homeless shelter in San Francisco and set up a free clinic.
“I don’t think you’re ever too young to give back,” Tatiana says. “You have a special gift as a teenager. It’s important to take advantage of being a kid and that youthful energy.”
Mercedes Flores, 17
High School: East Oakland School of the Arts
College(s): San Francisco State, Sacramento State, UC Davis
If She Ruled the World: “I would prohibit the use of the word ‘illegal aliens’ because immigrants are not aliens; we are humans.”
Mercedes Flores is an undocumented immigrant. But she is not hiding.
Instead, she is fighting. And not for herself. She’ll be fine, living the American dream, getting a valuable education at some highly regarded college. Her passion is to be a voice for others who don’t have it so good, to support them in any way she can.
“It does not make me happy to see all the negative comments certain people have towards us immigrants,” says Mercedes, whose parents came to America when she was 2.
“We are all equal. Why let not having a simple paper separate us, make us enemies.”
Flores put on a march to bring awareness to the fight of undocumented people. She organized a community event that featured Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, an inspirational figure based on her fight for the rights of her people in Guatemala.
But perhaps the most touching, most sincere service she’s participated in came from her affiliation with the Raza Unida Club at Castlemont High. At the club’s Homies Empowerment program, Mercedes serves breakfast to day laborers.
Monday mornings, they set up tables and distribute pan dulce and coffee while the laborers wait for someone to offer work.
“Most of the time,” Mercedes said, “They are mistreated and at times not even paid after they have done their work. It feels good to help them, especially since the majority of them have families thousands of miles away from here.”
Serena Ke, 17
High School: Oakland Tech
College(s): UC Davis, UC Berkeley, Northwestern, UCLA
If She Ruled the World: “I would bring education to everyone. Education leads to innovation. Innovation leads to progress. Progress leads to the future.”
Serena Ke wants to be a pulmonologist. Not exactly a garden-variety career choice, but her interest in lungs is hardly new.
Serena is the president of an asthma peer health education program, which she has volunteered for since she was 10. She goes to local elementary and middle schools to give presentations on asthma.
She is also a teen tobacco investigator, which helps make sure cigarette sellers are not peddling tobacco to minors. Serena goes to local stores, with a wire and video camera, and tries to buy cigarettes.
“Sometimes they do sell them to me,” she says. “I do get really disturbed. I can’t help but think, ‘This guy is so immoral.’ It’s kinda ridiculous.”
It all began when she took up swimming. She would get out of the pool and could not breathe. Not winded from swimming, but literally could not breathe.
She was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. Now, she wants to help younger kids to better live with asthma.
That’s how Serena rolls. She is always looking for ways to help others. It’s part of the give and take of being part of society. The same prompted her to start Keen On Green Oakland, a club at Oakland Tech in which students take on various cleaning projects around the city. And to volunteer at the Chabot Space & Science Center, where she ushers and talks to visitors about science. And to mentor underclassmen at school.
“Society gives back to me, too,” she says. “They offer me education. They offer me culture and protection.”
Agyei Wallace, 18
High School: Bishop O’Dowd
College(s): UCLA, San Diego State, UC Davis
If He Ruled the World: “I would solve malnourishment in the world. It’s crazy that people can’t eat. It’s a basic right. Just me sitting in a three-hour class, I’m starving. That’s just nature. Everybody should be able to eat.”
Where Agyei Wallace is from, the common goal is to get out. Reared in one of the roughest parts of East Oakland, survival and escape are logical paths.
“Just leaving is always an easy way,” he says. “Just hearing about a lot of famous people who could help but don’t, who used to be from here but don’t give back, that’s disappointing.”
But Agyei says instead of being motivated to flee, he is inspired to help.
When he serves as chairman of Brothers Making a Change, a mentoring program for African-American males at Bishop O’Dowd, he isn’t focused on the crime and poverty surrounding them. He’s setting up role models to come speak, connecting them with “little brothers” to influence and organizing activities to enhance their Oakland experience.
When he is volunteering at the East Oakland Youth Development Center, he isn’t lobbying for them to migrate out of Oakland. He’s serving as an example to the younger kids — a two-sport athlete who plays athletics while staying on top of his grades.
“Just knowing the history of Oakland,” says Agyei, who plays football and baseball at Bishop O’Dowd, “there’s just so much more here.”
Rafael Navarro, 18
High School: Youth Empowerment School
College(s): UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz
If He Ruled the World: “I would promote more organic and healthy foods. Set up farmers markets and make healthy food more accessible and cheaper.”
On the corner of 67th Avenue and International Boulevard, in the heart of East Oakland, Rafael Navarro sets up shop. Right in front of Futures Elementary School. But his product is much better than what usually is sold on the corner.
He’s selling health food.
“It feels good to know that you’re a little piece of the solution,” he says. “I just want people to eat more healthy food instead of buying their food at a liquor store.”
Navarro is passionate about healthy eating (not that he won’t take down a slice of pizza every now and then). Once he learned about the impact a poor diet has on overall health, he became a healthy eater. Once he was informed about the damage pesticides do and the lack of
access to healthy food, he became an advocate.
Rafael is big on farmers markets. They not only provide fresh, healthy food options, but they also help the local economy, by supporting local producers. And, because of the low overhead, they are affordable and promote food equality, he says.
He said he knows everyone won’t buy in, and junk food won’t be going extinct any time soon. That’s why he’s in front of an elementary school.
“As you get older, it’s harder to change,” Rafael says. “If you start young, it’s easy to keep going and develop healthy eating practices.”
Josue Preciado, 17
High School: Lionel Wilson Academy
College(s): Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
If He Ruled the World: “I would make sure everyone has the same equal opportunity to a full, guaranteed education.”
Josue Preciado loves the kids.
His gentle, humble disposition makes him easy to talk to, and his intelligence makes him useful. And Josue, based on his track record of service, doesn’t mind sharing what he has with the youth. Something about knowing that he’s molding their character, shaping their future.
“He’s outstanding with the kids,” said Regina Jackson, executive director of East Oakland Youth Development Center. “He’s got a quiet, kind of shy makeup. But he qualitatively and energetically works with the kids.”
Josue is a regular face at the EOYDC.
He was the art director during the summer program. He tutors kids in the homework center, helping them hone their math
But more important, he says, is the example he sets. He places a premium on being a model for these underprivileged kids, and that they see him involved in making a difference now. He especially hopes his younger sisters — Ruth, 13, and Judith, 12 — take notice.
“If I get used to giving back to my community while I’m young, it will become natural,” Josue says. “I am becoming more knowledgeable about the kinds of community hardships people face so, when I am older, I can support my community financially. Also, giving back now makes me a role model to my two younger sisters because they see that it is never too early to start giving back, and hopefully they will do the same.”
Gabrielle Davenport, 17
High School: Head Royce School
College(s): Barnard College
If She Ruled the World: “Each person that had the opportunity to make a positive change in this world would do so.”
Gabrielle Davenport can’t imagine life without music. It’s helped unlock her creativity, connect her to other parts of the world, appease her soul. Knowing how music has impacted her life, she can’t bear the thought of youth behind her being deprived of such exposure.
That’s why she is throwing a benefit concert so at least some youth can share in her passion.
“The idea that music is being cut in schools,” Gabrielle says, “it saddens me. It really does.”
The benefit concert is a fund-raiser for Music In Schools Today, a San Francisco-based organization that is helping put music into public schools in the Bay Area. The goal is to raise $5,000, which could fund a program in one local school for a year.
But this event, which will feature a couple of rappers from Heiroglyphics, is just one example of Gabrielle’s commitment to serving.
She’s done volunteer work for the East Bay College Fund. And Jack and Jill, a national organization that puts on events and activities for black mothers and their children. She even volunteers abroad, serving at a soup kitchen in an immigrant community in France.
No matter where she is — in the ’hoods of Oakland, in South America or Europe — she connects with the people and the culture through music.
“I think, and this sounds so cliché, music really is universal,” she says. “It’s a way to get to know people from all walks of life, a way to make bonds with people.”