It has been a little more than a year since Janie MacArthur overheard a conversation among some women who were part of an organization called the Young Men's Service League, in which mothers and their high-school-age sons do community service together.
The Portola Valley single mom of three sons was so intrigued by what she heard that she did some research and ended up starting the YMSL Alpine chapter, which includes mothers and sons who live or go to school in Menlo Park, Woodside, Portola Valley and the nearby area.
The chapter started with a class of 21 high school sophomores and their mothers and 30 freshmen boys and moms. It has been so successful that when the chapter recently put together next year's freshman class, it expanded to 35 boys and mothers, and still had to send some who wanted to join to another chapter.
Ms. MacArthur, who served as president of the Alpine chapter in its inaugural year, said the organization was started about a dozen years ago in Texas, and is roughly modeled on the National Charity League, which is for mothers and daughters.
"I thought over the years, why can't they have something for mothers and sons?" she said. When she investigated the organization, Ms. MacArthur said she found there were a couple of local chapters, but they had no room for new members. "I thought, I have to do this because this is what I was looking for, for my sons."
Ms. MacArthur said the group focuses on giving boys the experience of volunteering in the community regularly during their four years of high school "so that giving back becomes a natural rhythm of their lives." Giving mothers the chance to work alongside their sons during those years "is a unique and special opportunity," she said.
The national organization provided the model for the local chapter. The boys have monthly meetings, which they run themselves, with advice from a couple of mothers, Ms. MacArthur said. They learn, she said, "leadership, life skills and (how to) fulfill job responsibilities."
George Pike, whose mother Bettina Pike will be next year's Alpine chapter president, said he was one of three boys on the sophomore class leadership committee. The three shared what they learned about leadership with the other boys.
"For us to grow up in a place like Woodside where we have everything. ... We're finding ourselves by doing this work," he said. "It makes us so appreciative for what we have."
The mothers have separate monthly meetings and also each has a job in the chapter. "We moms all share a passion for raising young men who are well-balanced and productive members of society," Ms. MacArthur said. In a culture that emphasizes academics and sports, YMSL offers "a chance for our sons to practice compassion in our communities, to develop emotional intelligence and learn to be leaders," she said.
If you talk to some of the boys who have just spent a year in YMSL, though, the word "fun" comes up a lot. On a recent Sunday afternoon three boys from the Alpine chapter, with their mothers, assisted with the Menlo-Atherton Little League's Challenger League for children with disabilities.
The boys partnered with members of "Ruth's Rockin' Sox" to help them bat, field and "run" the bases.
Sam Putney, from Woodside, said the Challenger League activity is his "personal favorite." "If you're actually helping someone directly, it makes it way more fun," he said.
Sam also has packed books for the Raising a Reader organization (fun, but tedious, he said) and participated in a beach cleanup. "We found some really interesting stuff," he said, including a leopard print bikini, a tire and "literally tens of thousands of cigarette butts."
While the boys may think they're just having fun, their moms know they're also learning valuable lessons.
According to Sam's mom, Carolyn Putney, one of those lessons is what it means to be part of a community.
The beach cleanup showed the boys why recycling is important and that "the reason we want to put (trash) in the garbage can is so it doesn't end up on the beach," Ms. Putney said.
Kaleo Serughetti, who was volunteering along with her son Morgan, said that this activity, plus volunteer time Morgan has spent at the Lytton Gardens senior center, has allowed him to relate to people very different from himself.
Boys "are so self-centered," she said. "It's good to get outside of it and see there's other people who are different."
Morgan Serughetti, a student at the Woodside Priory in Portola Valley, said he has volunteered with the Challenger League three times. "Here, everyone has fun," he said. "The goal is just to see them come off with a smile on their face."
Karyn Leahy from Menlo Park, who was there with her son Jack, was helping the other moms make root beer floats for the players. "It's really just sharing the experience with (Jack) that I love," she said.
"We love the Challenger League. It's just priceless watching them interact with their buddies," she said. "It's one of my son's favorite things."
Bettina Pike, next year's YMSL Alpine chapter president, said there are also some more selfish reasons she and George love YMSL: the "chance to spend time with dear friends and neighbors." Many local students who are friends end up at different high schools.
"I think my favorite thing about it," George said, "is being able to reconnect with my good friends I haven't seen in a long time getting to be with our friends and doing really fulfilling work."
Go to the national organization's website for more information.