The Impact - Volunteering In Silicon Valley

April 30 2020

StandUp for Kids - Silicon Valley

Today, we would like to highlight one of StandUp for Kids - Silicon Valley’s longest participating volunteers, Shonal. Shonal was one of the first volunteers to join the Silicon Valley chapter when it opened its doors in 2014, and has since shown nothing short of commitment, compassion, and dedication to the program and its mission. Today, as one of Silicon Valley’s lead volunteers, Shonal continues to volunteer frequently at the Village, our Outreach Center, and advocate for Silicon Valley’s most vulnerable youth. 

When did you join StandUp for Kids - Silicon Valley and why?

I joined in 2014, right around the time Silicon Valley opened. After trying my hand volunteering with different organizations in the area, I realized that I wanted to spend my time somewhere where I could see the direct impact of my work. When I joined StandUp for Kids, I was not only impressed with how much the Village looked and felt like a home, but I also recognized that, because the Village had just opened up, this was a place where I could play a significant role in serving my community. This space had a lot of potential, and I wanted to be a part of that.

How was it like seeing StandUp for Kids - Silicon Valley grow over these years?

When you have good ideas with good intentions, people tend to stick around, and I think this is how the Village has become the place it is today. In the beginning, the Village was only open two days a week -- you have to understand that keeping the Village open for those two days was a big deal. We were still in the process of recruiting volunteers and we were still struggling to make our organization known. So every additional day we were able to open up the Village -- from two days a week, to three, and now to five -- was a milestone. The number of days we opened our doors became a direct reflection of the program’s growth - the number of volunteers and the number of homeless youth that were coming in. It became clear that we were having a positive impact on the kids. Over time, as the program became more stable with a growing volunteer base and a constant flow of youth, we were able to focus on strengthening our relationships with the kids. At the end of the day, each kid that walks through our doors is unique, so providing individualistic attention through close conversations and mentorship became important. 

It’s interesting -- since we’ve had to move the Village to its new location, I started to see these patterns of re-establishment again. At times, it felt like we were starting over, but we weren’t. Because the Village was so well-established prior to the move, the transition has been much easier. The kids know that we are still here, they know that they can rely on us. And the fact that the Village continues to open its doors during the CoVid-19 pandemic exemplifies the strong relationship we have with them. Watching StandUp for Kids - Silicon Valley go from its struggling beginnings, to now making such a powerful impact on the kids, has been wonderful. We never want them to feel like they are forgotten, and today, I can confidently say that the Village is here to stay no matter what.

What do you think has made you stay all these years?

Building relationships with these teens has been very important for me. These teens come from so many different backgrounds, and it is important to recognize how difficult it is for them to open up. But the Village has established a safe space to foster deep friendships, which has been incredible. I cherish these because, outside the Village, it is so rare to find opportunities to build these relationships. And over time, I see these kids grow in countless ways, whether they are transitioning off the streets into housing, overcoming addictions, or pursuing careers and education. Even when kids age out of the program, they keep in touch with us. It’s both humbling and hopeful to see the potential in these kids as time passes.

Silicon Valley is also unique in that it brings together people from vastly different experiences. It is so easy for someone to live their own life in a bubble, so I really think it is beautiful that the Village is a space where we can mingle, interact, and share our ideas and perspectives. Take myself, for example. As someone who works in technology, I’ve started seeing instances here in the Silicon Valley where advancements like automation and online shopping can have unconstructive effects on society, like closing down stores and flushing out everyday jobs, such as cashiers, dishwashers, attendants, etc. I bring this perspective with me into the Village, whenever I am helping kids search for jobs or plan their education paths. I watch them work so hard to land stable jobs, yet find myself worrying about whether or not these jobs will be taken away from them. As Silicon Valley continues to innovate, creating a destination and ever-growing opportunities for highly skilled workers in the tech field, it is difficult to watch local communities slowly get pushed out due to increases in real estate value. Having first-hand experiences in tech life and the Village have made these perspectives evident. It’s given me more insight on how I think about technology: Instead of using our advancements to improve profits, we need to use it to improve people’s lives. In this way, we can preserve our community and help improve the quality of life for our youth.

Having volunteered with StandUp for Kids - Silicon Valley for so long, I feel that the Village has become an integral part of me. It’s become my community, my home now. There have been countless opportunities to learn about different facets of life, and I know that I still have so much to learn. There are still many more people who will come through our doors, and shape this community. So while I’ve been here for a little more than five years, there is still a tremendous amount to look forward to.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a volunteer?

It’s not easy facing the reality of what these kids have to go through. Everybody has their bad days, and not everyone is going to come into the Village in the happiest of headspaces. At times, kids will come in looking for a break because they’re going through something difficult. And inevitably, there have been days where they break down or lash out because they’re unable to deal with their emotions constructively. As a volunteer, it’s troubling to see these kids become so upset, but it becomes that much more important for us to support them. Even when I have good intentions in trying to help them, they might be so fed up and tired with whatever is happening, that they won’t want to listen to anything I say. So these exchanges do happen, and it’s heart-wrenching because you never want to be on bad terms with someone you care so deeply about.

But this is why forming trust and strong relationships is so important. At the end of the day, these kids care about the Village and their community, be it volunteers or other kids. So sometimes, they do come forward to us and acknowledge what they are grappling with. With time, they show a willingness to communicate with us. So everybody is learning, whether it is the kids or the volunteers. And over the years, as these relationships become stronger, I have a better sense of where these kids are coming from when these bad days do happen. It’s become easier to support them and advocate for them through it all.

What impact do you think the kids have made on your life?

One of the things I’ve learned to appreciate more is resilience. I think about how much they have gone through, and it is inspiring to see them keep progressing despite whatever setbacks they face. There are days they come into the Village and are dealing with the worst of situations, and there are other days where they come in the happiest I’ve ever seen them. As bleak as things may seem, I’ve realized that when you put something constructive out into the world, someone will be positively impacted by that. And then when they decide to do something constructive, somebody else will benefit, and so on so-forth. That’s how you build a community, that’s how I’ve seen the kids build this community. It is so easy for me to live my own solitary life, but when I acknowledge how these teens show resilience and continue to build their own sense of community, the Village becomes that much more important to me

What impact do you think you have made on them?

I value communication a lot. So throughout my time at StandUp for Kids, I’ve always tried to figure out how to create more dialogue with each kid to better understand what they’re experiencing. I really try to stress to them that, regardless of what they’re going through, communication is invaluable because it can be very harmful to keep stress and negative emotions bottled up. The questions I ask can be simple as “Hey, is everything alright? What’s new with you?” in creating a safe interaction where kids can express their opinions. 

Again, when our ages and experiences vastly differ, we have to assume that youth may hold back and hesitate to discuss what they’re going through and how they feel. So it’s really important for me to get them to talk about anything. The Village has collectively done a great job at showing these kids that we’re not here to judge, but that we’re here to listen and support. Even if I am helping a kid in the smallest possible sense, they know that I’m there for them. And in the process, they’ve seen that it is perfectly fine to hold and express opinions that contradict those of others. In this way, I’d like to think that I’ve helped them understand the value of communication.

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