Picture this. Led by a woman on a bicycle wearing a full-body turkey suit, hundreds of holiday revelers will run, walk or stroll from the starting line of the fifth annual Tri-Valley Turkey Burn on Thanksgiving Day morning.
If you're at Pleasanton's Ken Mercer Sports Park for the 9 a.m. start on Nov. 28, you may see that same middle-aged guy who was thankful last year for his "Health, Family, Friends, Mary and the ability to do this run!!" Or the young woman with the blonde ponytail who was thankful for "Fabulous friends and family, my wonderful daughters, clean air and delicious turkey." Or even the gent who was thankful for "Freedom of the Press!"
Such messages worn by nearly every participant will be featured at the event again this year. Everyone will get to see what everyone else is thankful for because their messages will appear on their Turkey Burn racing bibs.
It was that kind of innovative thinking that inspired Pleasanton North Rotary (PNR) members Kevin Greenlee and Ron Sutton, also founder of World Walk to Wellness Challenges, to create the Turkey Burn, as a healthy way for participants to burn off the calories that they'll surely consume later Thanksgiving Day.
The Turkey Burn fights hunger as well. Participants are encouraged to bring canned and pre-packaged foods to donate to Tri-Valley Haven for distribution to a surprising number of needy families in the Tri-Valley this fall.
And the Turkey Burn provides financial support for several character-building youth services, sponsored by PNR.
The programs reflect Pleasanton North's longstanding commitment to youth, as exemplified by the lobbying efforts by former PNR member Lee Denlinger and District 5170's Ron Sekkel. They persuaded Rotary International's Council of Legislation in 2010 to amend Rotary's constitution to create a fifth "Avenue of Service" for youth services. Because of this historic change, 32,000 Rotary clubs around the world sustain youth leadership development programs for hundreds of thousands of adolescents in their communities.
Foothill Interact Club
At Pleasanton's Foothill High School, students learn the meaning of Rotary's motto of "Service Above Self" through the extracurricular Rotary Interact Club.
Some first join Interact to fulfill their mandatory hours of community service for high school graduation, but many stick with the club to go well beyond the minimal requirement.
With guidance from PNR adviser Dr. Ryan Spuller, the Foothill Interact Club raised funds during the 2018-19 school year from various projects to help them purchase eyeglasses and bicycles, then given to needy adults and children.
Working with Rotary International, Foothill Interactors also partnered with the nonprofit SOS Villages to assist Venezuelan villages meet their basic needs.
Opportunities for Rotary-sponsored training and networking with Interactors at other high schools add to the club's appeal. The next Foothill Interact president and a second designated member will join about 150 other Interactors at the Rotary District 5170 Presidents Winter Retreat (PWR) later this year in San Jose. Funds from Turkey Burn will cover half the cost of the FHS Interactors' participation.
"PWR is an overnight weekend trip for club officers to develop their leadership skills and to inspire them to work toward becoming involved at the district level of Interact," current Foothill Interact Club president Samantha Do said in an interview. "It helps us meet other students and inspires us to become part of that upper leadership."
Rotary District 5170 supports 55 chapters in a region from Santa Cruz to Oakland including the East Bay and Silicon Valley. In addition to Pleasanton North, Dublin Rotary Club, the Rotary Club of Livermore, the Rotary Club of Livermore Valley, the Rotary Club of Pleasanton and the Tri-Valley Evening Rotary Club serve the Tri-Valley in many ways.
For youth leadership development, it would be hard to find a program that matches the effectiveness of District 5170's Rotary Youth Leadership Award (RYLA) Camp, an annual six-day training program for about 200 high school sophomores and juniors at Scotts Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Every club in District 5170 is allocated a discrete number of placements for the camp. Pleasanton North Rotary believes so strongly in RYLA that it recruits unused slots from other clubs to maximize the number of scholarships it can offer with financial help from the Turkey Burn. Each $650 scholarship pays for food, housing, workshops, manuals and related material.
Greenlee, recent recipient of Rotary District 5170's Ward Garing Youth Program Award, has led these efforts.
"RYLA provides a deep dive that challenges the student to grow personally to move beyond the self-centered immaturity of their adolescence," he said. "They enter the program nervous and shy. They come out feeling self-confident, with the support of a new network of friends who have the shared experience of this extraordinary leadership training program."
While emphasizing leadership development, RYLA also helps campers develop skills in project planning, time management, public relations, social media, team-building and public speaking.
As a RYLA camper from Foothill in 2018, Do was assigned to a community services team and given $200 and three days to implement a project for presentation to her fellow campers. In response, they designed and planted a flower garden that has become a permanent fixture outside the camp's housing office.
"Before the experience, I would not have expected myself or anyone else to complete a service project so well and in such a short length of time," she said. "It gave me more faith in what I can do as a leader."
While RYLA teaches leadership, Rotary International Youth Exchange -- another program supported by Turkey Burn -- gives students a chance to live and study abroad.
The program works both ways. In the past nine years, PNR has sponsored 11 local students for 10-month stays in Argentina, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sardinia (Italy) and Spain. Pleasanton families have played host to 11 students for a full school year from all these countries as well as Belgium, Brazil, The Netherlands and Switzerland.
For American students, the participant's parents typically pay for their child's participation, though scholarships are awarded to outbound students whose parents can't cover the full cost. The in-country Rotary clubs that sponsor American students also pay their monthly stipends.
For inbound students, their host families assume responsibility for shelter, food and transportation. Each inbound student receives a $150-per-month stipend from funds generated by the Turkey Burn and administered by the nonprofit Pleasanton North Rotary Foundation.
Foothill principal Sebastian Bull considers the impact of the exchange program on his school to be immeasurable. He said he is impressed by how it exposes Foothill students to other cultures, languages and beliefs through their frequent contacts with the exchange students.
Bull has seen how exchange students become fully involved at the school, including the Brazilian student who was cast in the lead role of a musical and the German and Japanese students who assisted with classes that teach their native languages.
Laura Klein, a 16-year-old exchange student from Germany during her 2014-15 school year in Pleasanton, cherishes memories of her host family, whom she says adopted her like their own daughter.
Klein made enduring friendships with her classmates, fellow exchange students and even the families of adult Rotary members. She improved her presentation skills in English during monthly appearances at PNR club meetings, and like several other exchange students, she competed with American students in the Rotary's Richard D. King Annual Youth Speech Contest.
Currently studying at Middlebury College in Vermont, Klein has become a world traveler.
"Rotary opened up many new doors and opportunities for me," she said. "I am and will always be grateful for that!"
Pleasanton native Anna Torres Gill remembers learning self-reliance and bonding with her host families as an exchange student in Capitan Sarmiento, a rural community about two hours from Bueno Aires, Argentina -- and 6,400 miles from Pleasanton.
She also adjusted to the social and physical environment and came to appreciate different ways of thinking about education and careers while she mastered the Spanish language. Her favorite memory was seeing her host sister walking down a runaway to accept her high school diploma.
Students of the Month
Back at Foothill High, PNR uses Turkey Burn funds for its Student of the Month program.
Teachers and school administrators select students for recognition. Instead of focusing on academic achievement, Pleasanton North's program singles out students whose actions are a credit to the school in other ways. Monthly winners and a family member are invited to a PNR lunch meeting to receive a $50 cash award and a certificate of recognition.
Derek Heisig, a special education tutor in Alicia Newell's sixth-period lab class is an example. In her nomination letter, Newell noted that Heisig's work with special education students "who are not part of the in-crowd" energizes the class. Heisig reads books aloud, helps with school assignments and engages in friendly small talk with his classmates.
PNR also sponsors three annual $1,000 academic achievement scholarships, partially financed by the Turkey Burn, and usually awarded to graduating Foothill seniors.
Richard D. King Youth Speech Contest
Like all District 5170 clubs, PNR sponsors the first round of this annual speech contest, named for Richard D. King, a longtime leader in District 5170 and past president of the 1.2 million-member Rotary International.
For the 2019-20 contest, competitors from grades 9 through 12 will present five-minute speeches on the theme of "Rotary Connects the World." Cash prizes from Turkey Burn funds will be awarded to first-, second- and third-place finishers in Pleasanton North's contest.
Winners can advance up to two more levels of competition to the district finals in May 2020, where the ultimate winner will receive a $1,000 prize and an opportunity to present his or her speech to hundreds of Rotarians at their annual district conference.
Enterprise Leadership Conference of the Tri-Valley
This new addition to Pleasanton North's youth service lineup will enable one or two Pleasanton high school juniors to learn practical business skills with more than 150 South Bay students during a three-day program at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove.
Participants will develop a business plan for a selected product or service with guidance from experienced business leaders. Three Dublin High School juniors, sponsored by Dublin Rotary Club, participated earlier this year. The Turkey Burn will support students chosen by PNR to participate in 2020.
Bull said he appreciates how the various Rotary programs affect his students at different levels and ways. The Interact Club offers local community service opportunities to all students while RYLA is a specialized gateway for budding leaders. The International Youth Exchange program may not appeal to everyone, but it gives every student a chance to interact with classmates whose life experiences are very different than their own.
Many student award recipients don't expect the attention.
"It's life-changing for some of these kids," Bull said. "When I see them around campus, I see a certain glow in their faces that I think comes from that recognition."
In a way, Rotary youth services potentially provide something for the family of every Turkey Burn participant by offering something to every student. The services are worthy for public support when sponsored by PNR or any of the other Rotary clubs serving the Tri-Valley.
They're something to be thankful for.
2019 Turkey Burn rundown
Event: Fifth annual Tri-Valley Turkey Burn 5K/10K Family Fun Run/Walk/Stroll
Location: Ken Mercer Sports Park, 5800 Parkside Drive Pleasanton
Registration and Sponsor Expo: 8 a.m.
Race Start: 9 a.m.
Cost: Adults 18 and up, $10; youth 11-17, $5; kids 10 and under, free.
Organizers recommend picking up your Turkey Burn race bibs, pre-race packets and commemorative swag available for modest donations from 1-6 p.m. Nov. 27 at Inklings, 530 Main St., Pleasanton. Onsite registration and donation item pickup will begin again at 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day at the event.
Priorities for food donations
Ralph E. Johnson, director of homeless and family support services for Tri-Valley Haven, has announced specific preferences for food donations at the Turkey Burn. Priority items (in box, can or packet) include:
Instant mashed potatoes
Pumpkin pie mix
* Other canned or boxed, non-perishable food items also accepted. Items collected at the entrance of the Turkey Burn's staging area in Ken Mercer Sports Park starting at 7 a.m. Thanksgiving Day will be distributed to needy families Dec. 14 at Asbury United Methodist Church in Livermore.