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Getting her kicks

Menlo-Atherton senior makes her mark on the football field and with program she launched in support of foster kids

Many of us spent our high school years focusing on what we could get out of the experience personally, whether it was good grades or popularity with our peer group.

But Menlo-Atherton High School senior Laila Thompson-Wainer is too focused on helping others to have too much conscious regard for her own status, according to teachers and to people familiar with her involvement with foster youth.

M-A leadership program teacher Mike Amoroso calls her "charismatic" and "well-rounded," in referring to the breadth of her involvement at the school and in the community.

Thompson-Wainer, the daughter of Holly Thompson and Louis Wainer of Menlo Park, is vice president of the M-A student body, and started what promises to become a school tradition by inventing a series of student lunchtime theatrical productions called "Game Show Week" this year.

As part of the school leadership program, she's been instrumental in helping to organize the school's annual canned food drive, Amoroso said.

In the same vein, she has helped her family adopt foster children, and has created a weekly activity program for the children the family has sponsored and for others.

Thompson-Wainer is also breaking barriers by joining the M-A football team as a kicker this year.

"I have been blessed enough to know Laila since her freshman year," Amoroso said. "She's a special young lady and even more special to her classmates and the class of 2020."

The 'bug' for helping others

Thompson-Wainer said she got the bug for helping foster kids from her mother, who was a social worker in New York before the family moved to the Bay Area. Foster parents bring into their homes kids whose parents can no longer take care of them or just need a periodic break from parenting.

"Twelve kids have come through our home, from 2 to 17 years old, the longest being for eight months," Thompson-Wainer said.

The eight-month responsibility was for a sister and brother who were quiet and reserved at first, but began to come out of their shells after experiencing a new environment, Thompson-Wainer said.

The families still celebrate holidays together, she said.

As an offshoot of their own foster youth placements, Thompson-Wainer started activity classes called Playdates for her own and other foster parents' kids, with sessions every Sunday.

Playdate activities vary, but a typical session could have Thompson-Wainer leading an hour of dance and exercise, serving lunch and watching a movie with the kids. Special occasions might lead to creative activities; for example, she might work with kids to make cards to give their moms on Mother's Day.

"It's been very rewarding to see each of the kids' developments while in the class," she said. "They start out shy and then after a couple weeks they're running around wild, completely feeling like themselves and in their element."

The goals of the Playdate are to give kids going through the system "a chance to form their own community and friendships to not feel as isolated in their own situation," Thompson-Wainer said.

"We give foster families some respite and allow them to be given the same opportunities as other kids, like dance and art classes as well as fun field trips," she said.

"I have brought several children to (Laila's) dance and activity class," said foster parent Diane Sapienza-Boundy. "The children have thoroughly enjoyed the dance class and creative activities, and Laila has displayed a great deal of patience interacting with the children."

Thompson-Wainer applied for and received grants from the Rotary Club of Menlo Park and the Tutor Corps Foundation to produce the Playdates.

Bringing kids together

Menlo-Atherton is a school that celebrates its diversity and Thompson-Wainer has been "instrumental" in helping bring students together, particularly when she came up with the idea for "Game Show Week," Amoroso said.

The skits are based on the "American Idol," "America's Got Talent," and other TV reality shows.

Thompson-Wainer was also "instrumental" in the canned food drive at M-A last year that saw the sudents gather 289,000 pounds of canned food, exceeding their goal by 39,000 pounds, Amoroso said.

"Laila is innovative and also inclusive and brings everyone together to have a great time," Amoroso said. "The skills in the leadership program are to give them skills to go out into the work force and college and be successful."

"We have a culture of inclusiveness at M-A," Thompson-Wainer said. "No matter your race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic background, you are welcome to try out and do anything at M-A."

"We have a deaf class vice president, a male cheerleader, and a girl on the football team," she noted.

Indeed, Thompson-Wainer piggybacked an interest in soccer to try out for the M-A football squad to kick conversions after touchdowns.

She campaigned for a tryout by making a video showing her kicking field goals from 10, 20 and 30 yards out, which got the coaches' attention, Amoroso said.

"I was riding on the bus with her on a schoolwide service trip in January, and she asked me, 'What do you think about me being the field goal kicker for the football team,'" he recalled. "I told her, 'Put your heart and your mind into it if that's what you want to do.'"

So far, she said, things are going well and she's been accepted as the only girl participating on an all-boys team.

After winning the Division 3-AA state championship in 2018, the Bears are 3-3 so far this season, with losses to Serra, of San Mateo, and to out-of-area powerhouse East High of Salt Lake City.

Thompson-Wainer converted six of seven conversions in the Bears' opening win over Bellarmine, and was one for two in the Serra game that was played at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.

The one she missed at Levi's would have been good on a high school field, but National Football League goal posts are 5 feet narrower, she said.

Being on the school dance team for football previously helped her adjust to being on the football team itself, Thompson-Wainer said.

"The dance team would always go to away games and see some of the behind-the-scenes with football," she said. "It made me more familiar with the whole football process.

"I definitely thought being on the team would be a lot scarier than it has turned out. For me, it was all about embracing the awkwardness of being the only girl, but it was a lot easier because I had friends on the team."

M-A defensive line coach Sione Fifita said Thompson-Wainer has embraced the weight-lifting and conditioning regimen that goes along with being a member of the team even though she isn't going to be throwing a lot of blocks or making tackles.

"Let me just say she has been out-working some of the boys," Fifita said. "The boys treat her with respect as they do with everyone else."

As far as after graduation, Thompson-Wainer said she has an interest in environmental studies but hasn't decided yet how she would like to pursue it.

Other than that, she says, she has had a lot on her plate with her current commitments.

"I would like to have some involvement in the foster care community (in the future)," she said. "And I want to stay in touch with the community at Menlo-Atherton.

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