Palo Alto Students Foundation: Student-led nonprofit

Carissa Tsui and Kristine Lin

One act of kindness from an older student inspired the start of Palo Alto Students Foundation in the summer of 2020. The nonprofit organization founded by Palo Alto High School senior Michelle Pan focuses on encouraging youth education through hosting summer camps, contests and various other activities.

“One of my parents’ friend’s daughters went to college, and she donated her old school supplies to me,” Pan said. “I found that was very nice of her, and I felt that I could continue what she did for me for other people. That [was] … a direct inspiration for the idea of a school supplies drive.”

Michelle Pan announces the winners for Palo Alto Students Foundation’s poetry contest. Her organization has various camps, contests, and more for students of all ages. “Our mission is to provide volunteer services and education, build strong connections through learning and working together and motivate everyone in the community to make a lasting impact,” Pan said. (Photo: Michelle Pan)

Pan said she noticed an increase in educational inequity during the pandemic and decided to start a drive to collect school supplies for Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto. Through the drive, Pan collected binders, pens, notebooks and other stationery amid the pandemic after advertising on the social media app Nextdoor.

“We [Pan and the drive contributors] kept COVID in mind because the lockdown had just started recently and we were pretty conscious of that,” Pan said. “I had to collect [the school supplies] door-by-door when people were sheltered-in-place, and they just left them on their doorstep. When I got back, I had to sanitize every single item, and it took a long time.”

According to Pan, over 30 people from across the community contributed to her cause. Pan said the success of the drive motivated her to make a bigger impact on students, and so she started PASF.

“In the summer of 2021, we had our first summer camp, [which lasted] for three weeks,” Pan said. “We taught French, music theory, gardening and basketball, and for our summer camp last summer, we had digital arts.”

The camp was a hit, and soon after, according to Pan, the organization grew quickly, with students of varying ages across Palo Alto joining PASF. Through the summer camp and additional donations, Pan was able to raise around nine to 10 thousand dollars. She used a portion of the money to give back to students by organizing a poetry contest, which took place in the spring of 2022.

According to PASF’s website, the contest received entries from more than 20 schools and recognized 27 K-12 students. Pan said she enjoyed hosting the contest due to the impact it made on the community.

“My favorite program is our poetry contests,” Pan said. “It’s the most unique. I really enjoy this project because many students and even parents are involved throughout the whole process.”

After the contest, Pan put together a book featuring the participants’ poems.

“We published our first award-winning poetry collection booklet in 2022,” Pan said. “It was a joy to read our students’ authentic observations of the world through their poetry. We will keep this as an annual tradition, and hopefully in the future, our poetry books will be available in local libraries.”

Senior Claire Qin won several awards in the contest with her two poetry entries after learning about the opportunity in an InFocus announcement. According to Qin, she was surprised when she heard she had won.

“I submitted two [poems] and I ended up winning prizes,” Qin said. “I didn’t really think that I would win anything, but I just submitted it anyway, so that was super.”

PASF has hosted several guest speakers for their “Youth Present” and “Career Talks” programs, where students can learn about various topics and careers from student and adult experts alike.

“We have had topics like dental health education, speech and debate, AI [artificial intelligence], computer science and even birding,” Pan said. “We also invited adults as guest speakers for our career talks with topics like how to be an airline pilot, how to run a presidential campaign, and the Mars perseverance mission.”

As Pan is a graduating senior, PASF’s future is somewhat uncertain. Regardless, Pan hopes to continue running the program.

“I’m grateful for the support from my family and friends, to all the parents who have donated and supported our programs, and to the kids for participating in our programs,” Pan said.

PASF has plenty more activities and services, including tutoring young students and providing scholarships for low-income high school seniors. Those interested in more details or volunteering can visit the PASF website.