Menlo Park's leaders celebrated on Thursday a year like no other by recognizing the pandemic response contributions of local businesses, nonprofits and public servants during the annual Golden Acorn award ceremony.
Conducted live on YouTube, the event featured a keynote address from Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO and Menlo Park resident Ahmad Thomas, who reflected on the region's resilience and hopeful outlook. The event, hosted by the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, was emceed by Menlo Park City Councilman Ray Mueller.
The award winners for 2021 were: the Facebook community engagement team, for excellence in business support; Menlo Park-based Avellino Labs, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District's Pandemic Emergency Response Unit, the Menlo Park City School District, St. Anthony's Padua Dining Room, LifeMoves, and local health care delivery services for the "Bridge to Wellness" award; the city of Menlo Park, the San Mateo County Health Department, elections office and County Manager for the "COVID Governance" award; and Ali Elsafy, owner of Menlo Park restaurant Bistro Vida, as winner of the "Unsung Hero" award.
In his remarks, Thomas acknowledged the challenges the region faces in emerging from the pandemic and argued that policymakers should approach those challenges – both longstanding problems like traffic, housing and energy, and newer priorities for his organization, like business competitiveness, infrastructure, climate, innovation, racial justice and education – like a startup tackles obstacles, not just scrapping what doesn't work but "A/B testing what does."
"As the gap between the two Silicon Valleys widens, the leadership group and our member companies are working hard to partner and step in with concrete, sustainable solutions. The pandemic has created the inflection point we now face, but a long road of choices preceded it. It is up to California to pivot and to plot a new path forward," he added.
And while the challenges the region faces are not insignificant, and naysayers might encourage companies to seek out other regions to build up their businesses, he argued, Silicon Valley's still got its competitive edge.
"Silicon Valley should be the 'next Silicon Valley' and Menlo Park and is, and with your leadership and support, will continue to be, a great hub of innovation, commerce and community for us all," he concluded.
Among other actions, the recipients were awarded for following accomplishments.
The Facebook Community Engagement Team helped to set up a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the company's headquarters that vaccinated up to 1,300 patients each Saturday, created a fund with $250,000 to give to more than 30 local recipients to help programs meet their needs during the pandemic, and donated personal protective equipment to frontline workers and medical professionals. It also supported small businesses by buying more than 44,000 meals to support 65 local restaurants to donate to nonprofits, schools and health care workers, made $15 million in small business grants throughout the Bay Area and sponsored the 2021 Peninsula Restaurant Week. In addition, it partnered with local nonprofits to distribute farm produce boxes to those in need, offered prepared family meals with the Ravenswood City School District and donated hundreds of pallets of food to nonprofits working on food security efforts. Team members include Ashley Quintana, "Auggie" Torres, Dena Grimm, Juan Salazar and Lauren Swezey.
Avellino Labs, a gene therapy and molecular diagnostics company headquartered in Menlo Park, received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to lead two types of COVID-19 tests and has performed more than 1.6 million tests, which translates to between 8,000 and 10,000 tests processed per day.
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District's Pandemic Emergency Response Unit responded to more than 5,000 emergency medical incidents, 219 of which were confirmed to have been COVID-19-related and 397 were possibly related to COVID-19. But the first responders had to be ready for every one of those responses to be COVID-19-related, pointed out Mueller.
"That underscores the reality that in every one of those 5,323 incidents, those first responders were putting their life on the line," Mueller said. "They were walking into a situation where they weren't sure if the situation they were dealing with in the moment was COVID-19." Members of the emergency response unit were Cameron Banks, Scott Blanford, Travis Hooper, Randy Kelly, David Magnan, Nick Marra and Mark Zamparelli.
The Menlo Park City School District was the first school district in the Bay Area to reopen its campuses back in September 2020, offering almost a full year of in-person learning to students. It also offered a virtual academy to families who preferred remote learning during the school year. The district was "an absolute beacon of hope to students on the Peninsula," Mueller said.
"It set such an example of how to bring students back in a collaborative manner."
Health care delivery services , or all of those essential workers in the health care sector who worked to test, diagnose, treat, care for and now vaccinate the community during the pandemic, also received a special shout-out from the Chamber of Commerce. "It's just an unbelievable level of sacrifice," Mueller said. "We just wanted to take a moment to thank you."
St. Anthony's Padua Dining Room , a hot meal provider in the community that saw a 30% increase in the number of meals served over pre-pandemic times, received donations from companies like Greylock Partners and Facebook to provide meals for food-insecure people. The dining room is in its 47th year of serving hot, nutritious meals. It also offers produce and groceries in a to-go format six days a week, every week.
LifeMoves, a Menlo Park-based homelessness services provider, served more than 8,200 people during the pandemic with emergency shelters, interim housing sites and services and helped more than 2,000 people access stable housing since March 2020. In the past month, it has also opened a 52-room interim housing site in Half Moon Bay and a 100-unit interim housing community in Mountain View.
The city of Menlo Park started and operated a virtual emergency operations center, issued emergency orders to protect public safety, kept police and emergency public works services going during the pandemic, switched other meetings and events online, and delivered meals and enrichment activities to seniors. There were many city employees who continued to do "incredible work" during the difficult times the community faced, Mueller said, commending City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson for leading the city through the challenging circumstances. "We saw a tremendous staff reduction in the city during that time period, and the city rose to the occasion," he said.
The city also created grants for downtown businesses, installed parklets for outdoor dining and services, created a curbside pickup system for library services, installed disinfection stations at parks, reopened child care services and didn't have any reported workplace COVID-19 transmissions, according to the Chamber of Commerce.
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and County Manager Mike Callagy were commended for their efforts to protect renters, provide financial relief, seed grant programs, fund testing and vaccination sites, and liaise with the business community during the pandemic.
The San Mateo County Health Department and Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow were recognized for guiding the county's pandemic response, revising public health orders in response to infection rates, creating public health safety protocols and timely updates.
The San Mateo County Elections Office and Chief Elections Officer Mark Church were recognized for the record participation in the 2020 General Election during the pandemic despite quarantine restrictions. Voter registration hit 88% and voter turnout was reportedly 100% higher than the previous general election, according to the Chamber of Commerce.
Ali Elsafy, owner of Bistro Vida in downtown Menlo Park, was recognized as an "Unsung Hero" by the Chamber as someone who sprang into action during the pandemic.
During the pandemic, Mueller said, Elsafy "was focused on, 'How do we create an environment that brings the community together and makes people smile and enjoy each other?'"
The recipients were also provided with statements of recognition from local elected officials including congresswomen Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier, state Senator Josh Becker and state Assemblyman Marc Berman.