Extraordinary efforts: Two Palo Alto teens receive awards for repairing the world

Two Palo Alto teens recently received Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, a nod that recognizes, with a $36,000 scholarship, Jewish young adults dedicated to bettering their communities and beyond.

Their stories are unique — to say the least — but it’s the message they share that makes them truly extraordinary: It’s never too early to start repairing the world.

Six hours changed Sarah Van Zanten’s life.

Lying on the cold floor, her body writhing in pain, Van Zanten, then 15, blinked her eyes for the first time after her boyfriend’s violent kick launched her into a wall during a friend’s party. She was knocked unconscious for six hours, which made the foot-shaped mark on her torso and two bruised ribs seem like minor scratches.

When Van Zanten discovered her boyfriend, a football player at Palo Alto’s Gunn High School, had a violent past, she fought off feelings of intimidation and told authorities. He spent three months in juvenile hall and six months in alcohol abuse treatment.

The willingness to talk about her abusive relationship brought Van Zanten, now 19, national attention. She’s been a spokeswoman for teen dating violence ever since, working closely with the “Love is Not Abuse” program and Web site she helped start with New York-based Liz Claiborne.

“The issue is not something a lot of people talk about,” Van Zanten says. “Though there are warning signs, I wouldn’t have said I was in an abusive relationship until that last night when I suffered a concussion and two broken ribs. That’s why we need to teach people how to get out.”

Van Zanten has divulged the painful details of that fateful night to local high school students, viewers of NBC’s “The Today Show,” prisoners and countless other audiences in an effort to empower helpless teens bound to violent partners.

Still, nothing compared to the first time she revealed her story before an unsuspecting group — her grandparents, other family members and friends who had gathered for her confirmation ceremony at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

“It was tough,” Van Zanten says. “After I read my speech, my grandma came up to the bimah and she was crying. It was really moving.”

Van Zanten said she hesitated to talk about her experience with friends at her synagogue for the same reason she never opened up at high school — she feared what they would say, or wouldn’t say to her face. So she ignored the rumors that circulated in both places because “there wasn’t another way to deal with it.”

While completing her confirmation project, Van Zanten volunteered at Shalom Bayit, a local nonprofit that advocates on behalf of battered women and their children and educates the Jewish community about domestic violence. Shalom Bayit Executive Director Naomi Tucker nominated Van Zanten for the award.

The outspoken 19-year-old, now a sophomore at Chapman University near Anaheim, will use the scholarship to further her education. She also plans to launch a program on campus that is based on a curriculum created by Shalom Bayit. College students, she said, are even less likely to come forward about an abusive relationship.

“At college, it’s still embarrassing,” Van Zanten says. “We don’t have our parents there — all you have are your friends. That’s why I’m making sure people get educated.”

The details of Eric Heimark’s childhood would make even the most proficient travel agent’s head spin.

The journey went something like this: Heimark was born in Chicago and, at the age of 4, he moved to Switzerland with his family. His father’s career in international finance then took them to England, and then to Palo Alto. They returned to England a second time and then came back to the Bay Area.

Being young, Heimark said, helped insulate him from the complications of constant change in his own life — but at the same time, he became acutely aware that, in every place he called home, there was a history lesson to be learned.

“The frequent moves really exposed me to different political rights in various nations and different cultures,” says Heimark, 18. “It forced me to have a global perspective, and I became fascinated with global citizenship.”

Heimark’s interest in world issues led to his involvement with Free the Children, an entirely youth-run organization based in Canada that builds primary schools in some of the world’s most impoverished countries, namely Kenya, India, Nicaragua and Sierra Leone.

Eight years ago, a teacher approached Heimark with an idea: to establish a Free the Children development office in the United Kingdom. Inspired by the nonprofit’s founder, 12-year-old Craig Kielburger, Heimark agreed.

And these days, Heimark is working to open another branch — this time, a little closer to home.

“I think Palo Alto has a high concentration of intellectual people who are willing to change the world,” he says. “It was a natural place to open our first U.S. office.”

What does it take to build an office? Funding, funding, funding. Heimark secured donations from private contributors and will use his scholarship money to cover some of the costs. It also helps financially to be an offshoot of the main operations in Canada, he said.

He’s also working with the Palo Alto School District to form partnerships and garner interest from kids, a critical aspect of an organization rooted in the concept of “children helping children.”

“As youth, there are certain things that transcend language, social, economic and cultural barriers because of our age,” Heimark says. “We are going to be the ones who inherit the future, so it seems paramount that we start taking responsibility for its status quo.”

Winning the award instilled a sense of pride in Heimark, who was nominated by his college counselor, Brad Ward. Heimark begins his freshman year at Yale University this fall and plans to start a Free the Children club on campus to get college students involved.

“Tikkun olam and community service projects really stretch us to look beyond our own personal bubbles,” he says. “I was very pleased to receive an award from an organization that emphasizes such values.”

The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, handed out by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, are given to as many as five deserving California teens each year. Other winners this year: Fred Scarf (Sherman Oaks), Ronit Abramson (San Diego) and Shelby Layne (Pacific Palisades). An awards luncheon will be held next month in San Francisco.