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Eric Gerhardinger is simultaneously a man with a five year plan, and a student who never grew up. The combination of these qualities, contradictory as they may seem, brought him to Hope Horizon’s Elementary Spiritual Program as a volunteer.

Eric works primarily with the fifth graders during the program’s dinner events (on Mondays and Wednesdays). He arrives early to help set up, eats dinner with the students outside, asks how their weeks are going, and plays sports with them—American football, soccer, foursquare, or basketball. During the prayer and worship part of the evening, Eric leads a discussion with the fifth graders on the verse of the year:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-39)
The last part of this verse—‘Love your neighbor as yourself’—thematically links what brought Eric to this program at Hope Horizon, and his strongest takeaways from his year and a half of volunteering thus far.

While seeking out opportunities to volunteer, Eric found Hope Horizon on Central Peninsula Church’s website. This was in mid 2021, which was also during the fallout of the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the many anti-Asian hate crimes that have been occurring in the Peninsula and San Francisco. After those events, Eric felt a strong calling: “To me, it seemed like the only answer is Christ. It gave me a renewed sense of urgency to go out into the community and share the gospel. I’ve always been on the operations side. If you need someone to run your organization efficiently, I’m your guy. But the events of 2021 shifted my thoughts. What’s needed in our communities is the gospel. It motivated me to be in the frontlines, to learn to share the gospel, especially in the underserved communities in my neighborhood.”

In his earlier years, Eric has always been quite self-directed. However, he learnt that striving to be in charge of his own life only got him so far: “I would reach a lot of dead ends, and five years ago, I came back to the Lord in earnest. When there are big decisions on the horizon, they are all directed by the Lord.” His shift in perspective during 2021 brought him to Hope Horizon, but his decision to volunteer is absolutely also part of a long-term plan—this time, more loosely held. “I was looking for a way to learn how to share the gospel directly. In the future, I hope to transition to full time ministry and missionary work. It’s not in the immediate horizon, but I realized that the thing I can do right now is to go out and teach the gospel.”

And although Eric admits to being a bit of a pushover with the students, he is putting his God-given talents to good use in the elementary program. Specifically—his talent of being a big student. Growing up in Ohio, Eric was part of a large family. He credits them for keeping him always young in spirit. He has also lived in California for 12 years. “Growing up, I moved around a lot. Because of that, I struggled to have mentorship and to have people want to invest in my life.” Due to his experience moving around, he sees the mentorship work at Hope Horizon as a vital part of students’ lives. This kind of work is especially urgent coming out of the isolation of the pandemic.

“We initially had three students regularly showing up. God has blessed it, and we now have 20+ students. After lock down, there was a lot of bullying behavior going on. A lot of conflict going on between multiple students all at once. After they’ve spent so much time by themselves, going back into large groups can be overwhelming. So many new faces. A lot of it was anxiety related. I myself, as an adult, was struggling with similar social rust. But this year, we have seen a drastic reduction in all of that. They are treating each other a lot kinder, a lot more patiently. Not as much name calling going on. They have grown and matured as disciples in Christ, blessing Hope Horizon as a place of peace. I can see it happening week by week.”

Eric links this change in behavior to practices like gentle reinforcement, positive feedback, and consistency of message. But he thinks that the focus on Matthew 22:37-39 played the biggest role. “Having that message come across every week, it was very helpful for the students. They’re seeing the truth that in God, there is this agape love, which I hope to be displaying to them every week.”

His most memorable moment is when some of the students in the program embodied this “love your neighbor as yourself” ethos: “One of the boys got injured playing sports. It wasn’t too bad, but I saw other boys pick him up and carry him together to the Hope Horizon office. I don’t think that would have happened a year ago. I’ve been seeing the children within the program grow together, and help each other.”

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Inez and I met for our interview on a temperate Palo Alto day. We took a seat in the shade, but appreciated the warmth of the mid-day sun. Yes, as might be expected of two people who spent some amount of time in England (both in Warwickshire!), we talked about the weather.

As much as Inez likes the warmth, she has been to her fair share of cold places. As a nurse who went on medical missions, she’s been to countless countries — Scotland and Switzerland among them (as well as Canada, Honduras, Vietnam, Philippines, Bangladesh, Israel and more). Despite experience working in all these places, it was finally in the San Francisco Bay Area that she chose to settle. Inez cites the beautiful summer days, the flowers, and the fruit trees that remind her of home in Jamaica. She initially applied to work at Stanford for only a year, but was persuaded to put down three years in her application. “I stayed for 31 years,” said Inez.

Inez lived in East Palo Alto when she was raising her kids. She spoke of her struggles in trying to get her kids good schooling when many businesses and even high schools left East Palo Alto in the 1970s. Her two kids weren’t getting the academic support that they needed, and Inez was relentless. She spoke to the kids’ teachers, and some of them were as helpful as they could be given the circumstances. She spoke to the headmaster: “I said that if this continues, I will have to put my kids in private school even though I don’t want to. The headmaster suggested that I do so.” It was this experience with her kids in East Palo Alto that primed Inez to see the need for academic help through organizations like Hope Horizon.

She recalls how Hope Horizon was founded at the time (1980’s) by five college students who wanted to hold Bible studies; but they began to recognize many other needs. They discovered that the children were behind academically, so they started to offer after-school tutoring. Later on, they discovered that the children who were restless and not paying attention during class were hungry, so they provided a meal or snacks. “Seeing the need” is a common motif in my conversation with Inez. She found out about the ministry through her church and decided to help because she saw the need, “they weren’t here when my kids were growing up, but if I can help other kids…”

Inez’s instinct to see a need and help can be traced back to her family growing up. “My father was a farmer, and my parents always knew someone who needed help. My family was always reaching out. If someone had a baby and didn’t have a milking cow, my parents would send me with some milk. Or they would say, take this soup to so and so. I had to walk a lot to school and back, so when I get home and was sent out again, I wished that my father would give me time to study instead! Growing up, I was puzzled. I thought to myself, I never saw anyone giving them anything. They weren’t well off, but they were always reaching out.”

Because of that, Inez has always valued Hope Horizon for truly reaching out — extending themselves into students' lives in a way that addresses their needs but also gives them the encouragement to pursue their ambitions and value their education in a way that they might not get at home. “Reaching out” can also mean the other sense of the word: she sees Hope Horizon’s work and her own volunteering as having “reach” beyond the first circle of students that they come into contact with. The work that Hope Horizon does could touch many lives because the one student that is helped now could go on to help other students, and so on. “We never know the number of people that benefited from that one moment,” marvels Inez.

This sensitivity to community needs, this heart to “reach” and “touch” the lives of students, and this ripple effect — they all give hope to Inez that Hope Horizon can stay on and do the long-term foundation-setting work that many of the students in East Palo Alto need. “I think this organization will be here for many years to come. I cannot envision it being closed down.”

And yet, Inez has this confidence in Hope Horizon continuing because of her confidence in God. “God is always putting us in situations and with people we can serve.” She speaks of the times that God has worked through her in a way that only becomes clear in hindsight. Inez tells me of multiple experiences where she discovers that she “wasn’t just having a conversation with herself.” It was God working through her, speaking to her, encouraging her to do things she would otherwise rather not do for the sake of others. (I highly encourage you to say hi to Inez and ask her about those stories!)

Inez sees the same motivation and the same propulsive force in the people serving with Hope Horizon; always seeing a need, always reaching out, achieving results that are beyond their individual capabilities. At the end of her ruminations and many wonderful stories, Inez could only conclude: “God, you’re so amazing.”

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Something strange is afoot—the shoe is on the other foot—and other feet idioms to describe the unusual situation where I, the usually invisible blog writer, am interviewing myself!

I am Carmen Thong, one of the volunteers whose task it is to attend Hope Horizon events, interview someone, and write a short blog post about it. Of course, since COVID, there was less of the attending, and more of the direct interviewing conducted over phone or Zoom.

In the interview process, I try to simulate a normal conversation where I meet someone for a coffee and I am really invested to get to know them more. I ask follow up questions so that we can dig deeper into their stories. At the end of the process, I write up a narrative that encapsulates, as best as possible, the spirit of what they said. In all of this simulation, I find that every conversation I have does end up getting me invested in the person’s joys, struggles, hopes, and goals.

Being able to connect with people I haven’t met before in this deep way was an unexpected and wonderful experience. I wasn’t sure before I started if I would be adequate for the task. This is because I have just moved to Stanford University from Malaysia to start my PhD in English (on Postcolonial Studies). I was entering not just a new locale—which would already be a different enough context—but a new country and a new community (one beyond the academic bubble). I was concerned that because of this, I might not be able to connect with people well and to represent their voices in the best way. But my interviewing experience has shown me that with an open heart from both sides and listening ears, two strangers can meet for the first time, talk for an hour, and come out of it feeling affirmed, inspired, and encouraged. That is certainly what I felt from hearing the stories of many of the staff, volunteers and parents at Hope Horizon. The same spirit for hope and change in community moves us all, and might I even say, the same Holy Spirit.

I was particularly struck by the generosity of one mum I was interviewing over the phone, which was happening whilst she was also doing her many chores. Her frankness in sharing about the struggles she and her family faced during COVID, and how she was thankful for the help she received from her community and Hope Horizon particularly, made me feel so much optimism and hope for what an organization like Hope Horizon can do.

Hope is really and truly my largest takeaway so far from my time volunteering. I value this so much because, in an academic context, I think and talk about large scale concepts like capitalism, colonialism, and racism.

At Knight Hennessy, a scholarship program I am a part of where I met Sarahi (who referred me to Hope Horizon), we talk about systemic and global problems all the time. We are always encouraged to measure ourselves up to the task—which is an intimidating prospect because these systemic problems always seem so abstract, inevitable, and insurmountable.

Then, I meet the folks at Hope Horizon. I see volunteers investing weeks, months, and often, years, into a local community where they see real needs and decide to put in real help. I hear about kids and parents whose sense of self and ability to dream is built up by an organization who not only tells them they can do it, it also helps them to do it. I interview staff who were once kids in the Hope Horizon program, volunteers who have volunteered so long there they might as well be staff, and kids who want to volunteer when they’re older.

This is long term, community grounded, multi-generational work that has influenced so many lives, and continues to shine a light on the path ahead. Knowing Hope Horizon is out there doing the Lord’s work, and many other Hope Horizons elsewhere, makes the insurmountable global problems seem smaller.

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