17-year-old's nonprofit connects Calif. students with veterans

Students Partner with Veterans, a nonprofit started by Gunn High School student Audrey Li, left, talks with U.S. Army vet Gary Higgins, right, of Redwood City, during reception at the City of Palo Alto third annual Veterans Day Recognition event in the Council Chambers in Palo Alto City Hall in Palo Alto, Calif. on Monday, Nov. 6, 2017.


By JASON GREEN | The Mercury News (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 11, 2017

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Like many of her peers, Annie Ma, a 15-year-old sophomore at The Harker School in San Jose appreciated the men and women who served in the military, but she didn’t know any veterans personally and couldn’t truly grasp their contributions.

“Our knowledge about veterans is very remote,” she said. “We have our feelings of thanks and appreciation, but it’s disconnected.”

That’s changing thanks to a nonprofit organization founded last year by Audrey Li, a 17-year-old junior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. Through Students Partner With Veterans, Audrey is forging relationships between both groups and in the process addressing what she sees as a growing problem among her peers: low stress resilience.

“We want students to get positive role models, because our veterans are the most courageous and selfless people that there are,” she said. “We want them to learn from the positive qualities that our veterans have.”

The organization has accomplished that objective primarily by recording in-depth interviews with veterans and posting them to its website, www.students-veterans.com, and also by inviting former service members to speak to students at schools.

Audrey found an enthusiastic partner in Francis McVey, 72, of San Jose, a retired naval flight officer and past president of the United Veterans Council of Santa Clara County.

“I am quite concerned — at the risk of being politically incorrect — that people try to be so protective of young people and talk about safe spaces and the like,” McVey said.

“That’s exactly the opposite from what you need,” the Vietnam War veteran continued. “You need to be self-confident and self-sufficient and believe that you can handle anything that the world throws at you. If we can help you see the world that way, that’s great.”

McVey acknowledges that students, especially those in high-performing districts like Palo Alto, are under a significant amount stress, which has been linked to youth suicide.

“I think there’s a lot more pressure to perform and peer pressure,” he said. “It’s all the more important that people help you learn how to deal with that, that not everything is as dramatic as it appears at the time. Most things sort themselves out if you just stay calm, even keep a sense of humor about what you see going around you to the extent you can.”

Since its founding at Gunn last year, Students Partner With Veterans has expanded to other Bay Area schools — including Terman Middle School in Palo Alto, Los Altos High School in Los Altos, The Harker School in San Jose — and now boasts more than 200 members.

The organization was featured at Palo Alto’s third annual Veterans Day recognition event Monday and will be on hand for the United Veterans of Veterans Day parade in San Jose Saturday.

Audrey said she wants to eventually spread Students Partner With Veterans to every corner of the country and expand its focus to include raising funds for homeless veterans.

Being a member of the organization has been a life-changing experience, said Annie, the sophomore at Harker.

“The veterans have taught me a lot about what it means to be a good leader and a good person,” she said. “I definitely think I am a better person and a better leader for this organization having learned and listened to all these inspiring and different stories.”

Similar to Annie, Serene Ang, a 17-year-old junior at Gunn, also felt a disembodied appreciation for veterans before joining the organization.

“You know they exist, but you don’t really know them,” Serene said. “And with these interviews, you get really up close and personal, and you find out more about them.”

But the connection already was visceral for Emily Dinh, a 16-year-old junior at Gunn. Her grandfather fought in the South Vietnamese army and endured torture before fleeing to the United States. She views the organization as a critical outlet for youths who want to express their appreciation for former servicemen and servicewomen.

“The reason why we are living safely here … is because many of them gave the ultimate sacrifice,” said Emily, her voice cracking with emotion. “Without them giving their lives up, we wouldn’t have all the freedoms and the choices that we have here.”

Audrey said her interactions with veterans as a member of the Palo Alto YMCA Youth Development Committee and the Palo Alto Youth Council drove her to found Students Partner With Veterans.

“Their qualities — their responsibility, their perseverance, their courage — really inspired me,” she said.

McVey expressed some discomfort with the high esteem in which students seem to hold veterans like him.

“Don’t put every veteran on a pedestal,” McVey said. “Sometimes I feel a little embarrassed that we’re getting hero worship. We’re just average men and women who sometimes did extraordinary things out of necessity because there was no choice.

“But I think that whether we were drafted or someone like me joined early on, it was a great experience for learning discipline and self sufficiency and being able to cope,” he continued. “And if that’s something that we can help pass on — how to cope with stress and all the things that are going on in the world — I am very happy we have that opportunity.”

©2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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