Community Connections

Get Involved Palo Alto builds new model for youth service

From parents, to teachers, counselors and more, everyone loves the idea of kids doing community service. And if you talk to teenagers, they enjoy the chance to help others too. But with sports, school, homework and other commitments, how can Palo Alto teenagers move beyond just logging the service hours required to graduate and make a real difference in the community?

Get Involved Palo Alto connects teens and nonprofits

That question is at the heart of why local teacher Christina Owen created Get Involved Palo Alto three years ago. “I wanted my students to have a deeper connection to the world around them, but it was hard for teens to engage with local nonprofits who might want their help,” she said.

Christina started Get Involved Palo Alto (GiPA) as a pilot project for both Paly and Gunn students in 2016 with the goal of being the ‘bridge’ between local nonprofit organizations and youth volunteers. “The reality is that nonprofits don’t have the capacity to manage interns, so we took over the coordinating and logistics to make it easy for teens to engage with local organizations that could use their help.”

Forming a nonprofit to sustain GiPA

Students were enthusiastic about GiPA, but PAUSD have the funding for the program, so Christina had to form a nonprofit 501(c)3 and figure out how to make the organization sustainable.  “I knew that parents spent a lot of money to send their teens on expensive overseas service trips, so we decided to charge a fee and solicit donations to subsidize the cost for students who can’t pay.” That’s why GiPA internships cost just under $2k for a 12-week program.

GiPA solicits donations to help keep costs down and offer scholarships to students who cannot afford the fee.

Recruiting over 700 organization to match student interests

While that cost may seem expensive, GiPA projects are all co-created individually based on the students’ interests and nonprofits in the community. The GiPA team has cultivated a database of over 700 local organizations that are willing to work with student interns, which cover areas such as animals and environment, civic engagement, education, health and safety, sports, the arts, and more.

A glance at the projects that GiPA students have completed shows the range of ways they contribute to these organizations, from grantwriting for Run for Fun, to gathering visitor information for the Junior Museum and Zoo, and making visuals for a Zero Waste website.

And the nonprofits love getting help from GiPA interns too. Susan Usman, mentor from Project Safety Net said, “The GiPA student interns helped us accomplish so much more than we could have done on our own. We especially benefit from having student voice in our work.”

Students gain confidence and practical skills

Looking at ‘exit interviews’ by GiPA interns, it’s clear that these teens get a lot out of their projects, learning that “being on time matters,” and “how to be responsible for your own work, relying on yourself, being on top of things!” These practical skills are an intentional part of the program, according to Christina Owen. “GiPA is at the intersection of service-learning and career education,” she said. “We want students to become passionate about making a difference and gain work experience at the same time.”

How GiPA works

Students apply for an internship in either fall, winter or both, and then get matched with a mentor at local nonprofit, along with a GiPA project manager who helps the student set goals and design the project.

GiPA interns meet once a week at Paly High School to share challenges, problem solve roadblocks and build community as a group. At the end of the internship, GiPA has a celebration where students present their projects and consider other ways to stay involved with their organizations. GiPA also has a full-time 6-week summer program.

How to sign up and learn more

GiPA is accepting applications right now for its fall internships. Students who begin now will join an existing cohort of teens and get the support of the group as they go through their internships.

For more information, or to donate visit the GiPA website or contact Christina Owen at

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All photos courtesy of Get Involved Palo Alto

About the author

Victoria Thorp

Victoria Thorp

Victoria is the founder and editor of Palo Alto Pulse and has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. Victoria's diverse professional background includes working as the editor of , as a senior writer for KIPP and Teach for America, and as a radio producer for City Visions on KALW (91.7FM San Francisco). She is a graduate of Leadership Palo Alto and a member of the Palo Alto Partners in Education Advisory Board.

She has a BA in English from Tufts University and Masters in Education and Secondary Teaching Credential in English from UCLA.