Summer Camp: Building A Sisterhood

Posted on February 14, 2017 by  
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Summer camp may seem to provide two opposing choices: Kids can spend those sunny weeks shut up inside, drilling in academic skills to stay in shape for the school year, or they can kick back entirely, drop pencils for water guns and take a break from learning altogether.

At local all-girls’ camps, participants are encouraged to pick and choose the activities they’ve seen fall by the wayside during the school year. “It’s an opportunity to make choices,” said Polly Caddes, director of Casti Camp at Castilleja School in Palo Alto.

During the hubbub of the school year, kids who shuttle from rigorous school days to sports practice to piano lessons can be “so programmed they don’t really have a choice,” Caddes said.

In their two weeks at Casti Camp, girls in grades 2-6 (or 7-9 in the Campers in Leadership Training program) select five classes from a vast array of options, encompassing everything from poetry writing to piñata crafting and geodesic dome construction. The play-based offerings balance brains, brawn and heart, and all are geared toward the girls’ expressed interests, embracing femininity without limiting girls to stereotypical pursuits.

And, critically, campers can make choices about their own experience – on the third day of camp, if a girl’s classes aren’t the right fit, she can elect to transfer. This moment provides an opportunity for growth in and of itself.

“You get these little girls who stand in front of you saying, I want to make a switch, and they’re so shy, but they run out of there excited and run to their new class,” Caddes said.

The chance to speak up for themselves and act independently sparks new confidence in campers. “You see growth in that regard throughout the two weeks,” Caddes noted. “On change day, they’re a little nervous or intimidated to speak to these adults who are lined up with computers, but by the end of those two weeks they’re zipping around Castilleja’s paths and fields, looking self-directed and purposeful.”

To be a camper at Casti is to be immersed in a noncompetitive, intergenerational world of girls. Many attendees return year after year, bringing together a diverse group of girls from different area schools. Their college-age counselors – sometimes former campers or Castilleja alumnae themselves – are mentors who wear many hats, whether gathering girls in the morning to sing traditional camp

songs, reading chapter books aloud beneath the trees during the daily reading time, lifeguarding at the pool or teaching the classes they themselves have designed. “It’s inspiring to the young girls: Wow, these older girls can do so many things,” Caddes said.

So inspiring, in fact, that some make the leap from one role to another – last summer, two former Casti campers who met at the camp and maintained a friendship for years, despite attending different area schools, celebrated their first year together returning as counselors.

Across town at Athena Camp, whose several locations include one at Gardner Bullis School in Los Altos Hills, campers ages 4-14 blend sports with social-emotional learning. When choosing from among Athena’s offerings, which range from the usual soccer and volleyball to yoga and self-defense, girls are encouraged to break out of the “specialize early” mindset and sample something new.

And, crucially, the love of sports and athleticism is decoupled from raw competition. While campers may be skilled athletes, their ability to be a supportive team member and effective communicator matters, too.

“We’re teaching girls how to compete and leave it on the field,” said Abi Ryan, founder of Athena Camp and a longtime tennis player and coach. “And we don’t emphasize competition at all up until fifth grade,” rare though that may be in the pressure-cooker of Silicon Valley childhood.

Each day is a balance of athletic, creative and character-building activities; at any given time, a camper is equally likely to be dribbling down the basketball court, hard at work on an art project focused on inner beauty, or deep in a facilitated discussion about airbrushed models or how to use social media to create positive change.

Athena coaches – mostly college-aged student athletes – are role models who not only pass along how a love of the game has benefited them, but also can speak to their own experience with the issues campers face, whether it’s body image, conflict resolution with teammates or how to be a graceful winner.

And the fact that this is a camp by girls, for girls, and about girls? That matters, Ryan said. It’s not just that girls may feel more empowered to try new sports and be themselves in an environment designed just for them – though campers’ feedback bears that out, she said – it’s also about going into high school knowing what it feels like to build a positive team with other girls.

“In our culture, girls can be so mean to each other,” Ryan said. “We’re having girls learn to support each other and create a sisterhood of respect, having girls be on each other’s side.” If preteens already know what it feels like to be supported by other girls, she said, they’re more able to re-create that dynamic during a challenging adolescence.

For girls who want to break a sweat and build character a little farther afield, the San Francisco-based GirlVentures offers summer outdoor adventure programs for campers in grades 6-11 who are ready to strike out beyond the Bay Area. GirlVentures leads small-group outdoor expeditions throughout the summer.

Younger girls may hike beneath the towering redwoods of Big Basin, then strap on a helmet to go rock climbing, while middle schoolers splash in kayaks through Tomales Bay and sleep under the stars. By 11th grade, expeditions ascend to the Sierra, the girls equipped with the fortitude and technical skills to attempt a summit of 14,000-foot Mount Langley.

“The challenges and opportunities provided by being outdoors are incomparable,” said Taara Hoffman, executive director of GirlVentures.

When facing challenges, kids have a comfort zone, a learning zone and a panic zone, according to Hoffman.

“Our goal is to help girls expand their comfort zone,” she explained, which happens when girls beat obstacles they didn’t think they could and learn to trust their own self-efficacy.

Now entering its 20th year, GirlVentures was founded by two Bay Area women who met at the Harvard School of Education, where they found a common interest in the transition that girls made in adolescence and the problem of inner courage – how girls gain it, and how and why it may be threatened as they enter young adulthood.

Campers from homes as far apart as Palo Alto and Petaluma form friendships on the expeditions, and a deliberate commitment to accessibility makes it an especially diverse group. GirlVentures offers an extensive library of everything from technical gear to basics that some families don’t stock – no long johns? No problem. Because the program also provides all transportation and food, and offers both scholarships and sliding-scale fees, it’s open to girls who otherwise might feel shut out from such an expedition.

After the intense bonding experience of two weeks in the wilderness, Hoffman said, girls form a strong sense of community, learning “how to be allies to one another, and find their individual and collective strengths.”

One key element that strengthens that bond, Hoffman said, is that the expeditions are single-sex. “They appreciate being in an environment where they say they can be themselves,” she noted, “where they don’t feel the typical pressure to adhere to stereotypes when they’re around boys, of what a girl can and should act like.”

And whether they’re rappelling down cliffs or having a quiet moment looking over a sprawling vista of treetops, there’s time for self-reflection. In this environment, Hoffman said, “they don’t have to pay attention to the exterior as much as they normally do. They can focus more on their inner characteristics.”

Another critical element? No phones. No iPods. No personal electronics whatsoever, for the entire trip. Girls even eschew GPS to learn good old map-and-compass navigation. And, believe it or not, they come to appreciate it.

For more information on Casti Camp, visit
For more information on Athena Camps, visit
For more information on GirlVentures, visit


Local Rotarians Bring Aid To Haiti

Posted on January 3, 2017 by  
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Los Altos RotariansAfter the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, most of the local infrastructure was destroyed, leaving the capital city Port-au-Prince and surrounding communities in rubble and more than 150,000 dead. Humanitarian volunteers poured in with aid, including two Rotary Club of Los Altos members, Allan Varni and Bud Oliver.

Varni and Oliver’s goal was to form connections with local Rotarians and nongovernmental organizations to raise funds to rebuild a school that had been completely destroyed. The quake hit in the late afternoon, so the school’s students were not in class.

The school originally was built under the auspices of a Haitian grassroots organization, Society of Providence United for Economic Development (SOPUDEP), founded to provide education for children and adults, support children’s and women’s rights and create economic opportunities for the community.

Many American high schools sent volunteer students during winter and spring breaks to help rebuild the school, including Los Altos High School, led by teacher Seth Donnelly. International architects designed the new school to withstand earthquakes.

Varni and Oliver represented the Los Altos Rotary Endowment Fund’s World Community Service Fund, which provided building materials, desks, books, school supplies and software, along with e-readers from a local partner, the Los Altos-based Books for Haiti. Google Inc., Apple Inc. and other companies matched contributions and donated supplies.

With help from many sources, the SOPUDEP School is now up and running, filled with hundreds of students who look forward to a better future.  Varni described the Haitians as being in “good spirits,” with a strong commitment to continue the work of rebuilding.


A $3 Million Donation For MS Services

Posted on November 4, 2016 by  
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ceo-cyndi-zagieboylo-visits-with-edward-dowdThe National Multiple Sclerosis Society has received what representatives called “a significant, life-changing gift” from Los Altos resident Edward Dowd.

The gift will establish the Edward M. Dowd Personal Advocate Program, enabling some patients to continue living in their homes.

The $3 million, multiyear gift is the largest gift the society has received from an individual donor.

The Edward M. Dowd Personal Advocate Program will expand the society’s services for people living with MS, ensuring that personalized case management is more consistently available to those needing in-depth support.

“For too many people living with MS, significant challenges and roadblocks prevent them from living their best lives,” society officials said in a statement. “Disease progression, employment issues, social and environmental factors, family issues and more can present seemingly insurmountable obstacles to receiving needed housing, home care, medical equipment, insurance and other support.”

Society officials said Dowd’s gift will expand its nationwide network of trained case managers who are knowledgeable about MS and who can provide the level of support necessary for navigating the challenges of MS.

“This life-changing gift will accelerate the collective and individual ability of people affected by MS to live their best lives – connected, solution-focused and resilient,” said society President and CEO Cyndi Zagieboylo. “People affected by MS have a supportive partner in the society to access the information and resources they need to make life choices and to find sustainable, life-changing solutions.”

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. MS affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide.The National MS Society mobilizes people and resources so that anyone afflicted with the disease can have the best possible quality of life.

For more information, visit:


Local Walk Surpasses Fundraising Goal

Posted on October 19, 2016 by  
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pancreatic-cancer-research-walkAfter exceeding their fundraising goal, Los Altos residents Aaron and Leah Nichols deemed their inaugural event to fight pancreatic cancer a success.

The 2016 Silicon Valley Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk, held Oct. 1 at Mountain View’s Shoreline Park, raised more than $54,000. The Nichols said their initial goal was $20,000, with a stretch goal of $50,000. The night before the event, a $5,000 donation put them over the top.

The 5-kilometer walk attracted more than 160 participants and 21 volunteers.

Several of the attendees were the couple’s family and friends; others took part after learning about the event in an Aug. 17 Town Crier article.

It was personal for many of the participants. The marketing director of one corporate sponsor lost a grandmother to pancreatic cancer, according to Leah, while the event’s face painter lost two family members to the disease.

“There was a sense of community and hope, and that we are trying to do something good, making progress with it and turning this around,” Leah said. “It’s just amazing – the people that are affected by the disease are very passionate about it.”

Aaron and Leah both lost their mothers to the disease – within 18 months of one another. That inspired them to organize the walk.

The Nichols family partnered with the Lustgarten Foundation, the nation’s largest private supporter of pancreatic cancer research, to make the event happen.

Once the walk was over, Leah was already thinking about next year. She promised that the walk will continue – with hopes of drawing more participants and raising more money in 2017.

To donate and for more information, visit:


Library Cards Unlock Expensive Perks

Posted on August 17, 2016 by  
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BookmobileLos Altos Library patrons bagged a new perk last week when the Santa Clara County Library District added Rosetta Stone access for all of its users.

The digital language learning tool costs individual users $189 if they want to take a course in languages ranging from Spanish to Swahili and Arabic. But the libraries have used their collective institutional buying power to make it available to cardholders for free.

That’s one of the benefits that go beyond books at the library system, which has expanded its research and cultural services to stream everything from live classical music performances to coding lessons.

The library system’s virtual library – accessed through the website at – includes so many resources that it can be easy to miss items like the New York Times digital subscriber access ($195 per year) and free-to-patrons downloads of songs ranging from David Bowie’s classics to Adele’s latest album.

Students can log in and chat live with a free tutor across many subjects and grade levels using Brainfuse. livestreams concerts, operas and ballets from around the world and archives the performances on demand – right now, viewers can watch Agnes Letestu dancing Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” with the Corps de Ballet de l’Opera National de Paris.

The technology used to provide audiobook and e-book access has been sharply improving in recent years, as the library’s mobile app improves the process of logging in, checking out and handing off digital access to the apps that provide the content.

Finding all the services available to cardholders requires skimming through the “browse” and “research” sections of the library website. Lew highlighted a few resources worth picking out of the broad offerings:

• Freegal: Download MP3 files of everything from Sia to classical concertos. Limited to five tracks per week.

• Zinio: Download current digital editions of magazines ranging from The Economist to GQ and Newsweek. Children’s magazines include staples such as Highlights and Cricket.

• Safari: Access digital editions of science and engineering texts from “Hadoop: The Definitive Guide” to the “The Art of Game Design.” Safari includes the prolific O’Reilly series.

• Treehouse and Universal Class: Both sites offer online learning ranging from babysitting 101 to Adobe Photoshop and accounting. Online video courses at Treehouse feature interactive lessons in coding and web development.

• Newspapers: The library provides digital log-ins to newspapers including The New York Times and The Mercury News, as well as a database of international periodicals, with a particularly popular collection of 800 Chinese journals via Dragonsource.

To browse the collections and for more information, visit:


Stage Company Lineup For 21st Season

Posted on July 1, 2016 by  
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Los Altos Stage CompanyLos Altos Stage Company recently announced its lineup for its 21st season, scheduled September to June at Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave.

The season’s lineup features two musicals and three plays.


The season opens with “Assassins,” a musical featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman. “Assassins” delves into the violent means some will use to obtain celebrity status. The musical challenges audience members to look at their culture through the lives of the nine assassins and would-be assassins of the presidents of the United States. Characters such as John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau and Lee Harvey Oswald appear onstage to tell their stories in a kaleidoscope of dangerous personalities disappointed and disillusioned by the American Dream. Performances are scheduled Sept. 1-26.


Five lost souls find themselves relating through a series of quirky acting exercises in a summer community acting class in Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation.” The intimacy of the class creates an unlikely Petri dish where funny, surprising and poignant secrets are revealed. The New York Times, The New Yorker and Time Out New York hailed “Circle Mirror Transformation” as one of the top 10 plays of 2010. Performances are scheduled Nov. 17 through Dec. 11.


The Los Altos Stage Company begins the new year with Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang’s “Yellow Face.” “Yellow Face” explores what happens when a prominent Asian-American playwright and activist accidently casts a white man as the Asian-American lead in his new play. Intertwining the historical events of the 1990 casting controversy of “Miss Saigon,” the 1996 Campaign Finance Controversy during which a number of Asian-Americans were investigated by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the 1999 accusation of espionage against Wen Ho Lee, “Yellow Face” explores the complexities, contradictions and comedy of the construct of race. Performances are scheduled Jan. 26 through Feb. 19.


Next is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a play based on the 1960s novel by Ken Kesey and adapted by Dale Wasserman. Set in a mental hospital for convicted criminals, the play explores issues of individual identity and freedom, with inmate McMurphy clashing with Nurse Ratched as he fights for the dignity of his fellow patients. Performances are scheduled April 13 through May 7.


Los Altos Stage Company closes the season with “[title of show],” a musical about two young songwriters in New York City writing a musical about two young songwriters in New York City. Featuring music by Jeff Bowen and book by Hunter Bell, “[title of show]”’s two leading characters find that writing a comedy about the process of writing is more interesting than anything else they could write. Performances are scheduled May 25 through June 24.

Season subscriptions for all five plays are on sale now from $90 (students) to $162. Single-play tickets are set to go on sale Friday.

For tickets and more information, call 941-0551 or visit:


LAEF Fulfills $3.5 Million Grant

Posted on June 16, 2016 by  
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Covington School STEM teacherThe Los Altos Educational Foundation recently met its fundraising goal of $3.5 million for the 2015-2016 school year.

For more than 30 years, the nonprofit foundation has solicited donations from parents and local residents to provide funding for enrichment programs and smaller class sizes for all nine schools in the Los Altos School District.

The foundation’s annual contribution benefits every transitional kindergarten through eighth-grade student through Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; physical education; libraries; art; music; and computer science. The foundation also pays for class-size reduction in grades K-3 and 7-8, and a wider choice of junior-high electives. The foundation accepted donations throughout the school year to fulfill the grant, which was factored into the district’s budgeted 2015-2016 revenue to fund programs, teachers and staff.

The foundation increased this year’s grant to fund an additional certified PE teacher so that every elementary school has a dedicated instructor and a computer science teacher, which enabled the district to expand coding into junior high.

“We are proud to have met our higher goal in response to both our parents and LASD’s desire to offer more PE and develop a computer science program for TK-8,” said Susan Longyear, foundation board president. “I would like to thank all of our donors, from parents and grandparents to our community members and realtors. Giving to LAEF is our way of investing in what we value most: providing the well-rounded educational experience we want for our children.”

The foundation is finalizing its grant for the next school year, guided by input from its annual parent survey and strategic discussions with district leadership. It will announce its educational priorities and fundraising goal in early August.

“We anticipate another successful year, supported by a community that believes strong public schools are the foundation of a thriving community,” said Amy Peabody, the foundation’s executive director.

For more information, visit:


Los Altos Hills Surveying Residents

Posted on March 16, 2016 by  
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LAH Town HallThe proposal for a new Los Altos Hills community center has lost momentum, but the town survey it triggered has revealed facts expected to shape future city council priorities.

City council members and staff reviewed the results of the survey – and highlights from the 1,100 pages of detailed cross tabs it generated – during a special meeting last week.

“By summary, I’d say things in Los Altos Hills are great,” said market researcher Bryan Godbe. “The quality of life is very highly regarded, the quality of city services is highly regarded. At the overall level, when we drill down into specific services, people are, by and large, very, very happy.”

Residents who have recently applied for a building permit could expect to hear from city officials soliciting feedback about their experience.

Although only half of survey respondents indicated having personally navigated the process, doing so ranked lowest in satisfaction among 14 town-provided services.

“I’m not too surprised to see some of this when I realize we’ve had a number of meetings where every seat is full and they’re standing when we talk about a permit that we are reviewing,” Mayor John Harpootlian said.


Inter-generational Bonding

Posted on November 24, 2015 by  
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Grand-FriendsSanta Rita School in Los Altos expanded its call to the community in September with the inaugural “Grand-Friends Day,” summoning a new generation back to school.

Students and their parents invited their elders to visit, learn and see if they’d be interested in returning to the classroom as volunteers.

“It is ‘grand-friends’ rather than just grandparents, because you have aunts and uncles, grand-aunts and grand-uncles, and neighbors you’ve adopted who play that role, and those are important relationships – and that matters,” explained event organizer Kanesha Baynard.

A Santa Rita parent, Baynard launched the program this year after experiencing a similar tradition of school volunteering and grand-involvement several years ago while living in Colorado. Her mother-in-law lived with the family as a “granny nanny,” convincing Baynard of the power of having hands-on support across generations – even if you move and lose access to the “granny nanny.”

“When you look at the community here, there are a lot of international grandparents and families living together,” she said.

Grandparents have already been volunteering in roles such as library book shelving and story time at Santa Rita. After gathering volunteer interest forms from “grand” participants at the September event, the school is organizing how to stay in touch with interested grands looking for upcoming opportunities to be involved.


Upcoming Community Center Bond

Posted on July 31, 2015 by  
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Core site design conceptHillview Community Center and Park is one step closer to potential upgrades.

The Los Altos City Council last week unanimously adopted a resolution and ordinance that pave the way for a $65 million general obligation bond to partially fund the recreation-space renovation. The council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on calling for a November bond election.

Should voters approve the bond, the city would then engage residents and commissions in the final design of Hillview – a 55,600-square-foot multiuse building, aquatic center and playing fields complex.

Earlier this year, the council accepted an $87 million cost estimate and conceptual design that focuses on replacing the nearly 70-year-old community building, in addition to constructing public pool facilities, improving the playing fields and open space, and adding underground parking. The council targeted November for a potential bond election, and council members have been developing a financing strategy with consultant Larry Tramutola of Tramutola LLC.

To fund the project, the $65 million bond would go toward the community building, pool and playing fields. The $20 million to $25 million remainder of the project – namely, underground parking – would be funded through the city’s cash reserves.

If voters approve the bond measure, property-tax payers would pay the principal and interest on the bonds. Administrative Services Director Kim Juran-Karageorgiou estimated an average annual tax rate of $19.36 per $100,000 of assessed home value over the bond’s proposed 30-year term.

You can find more information about the project here.


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