students working in garden beds at verdese carter park
Students volunteering with Oakland Student Service (OSS) revitalized the garden at Verdese Carter Recreation Center in September. Credit: Dallas Alcorn / Oakland Student Service

A new nonprofit group is harnessing the power of Oakland youth who want to improve their communities. The twist? The organization was founded and is being led by the young people themselves.

Oakland Student Service formed as a nonprofit earlier this year, in part because its founders—all Oakland high school students—wanted to make a greater impact than they could with just a school club, said Matteo Salvadei, a senior at Oakland Technical High School and one of the group’s co-founders.

“Why stop here at a club? Why stop here at just one school and keep it within our network of friends?” said Salvadei. “With our nonprofit, the goal is service and it’s just inspiring kids to come out and serve the community and love the community.”

Salvadei said he got the idea to start a community service club at his school last December, and worked with his friends from middle school, who now attend different high schools in Oakland, to get the group started. His mom helped him fill out the Internal Revenue Service paperwork to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in January. 

Since then, the Oakland Student Service group has done park cleanups, organized a food drive for Oakland elementary school families, hosted college seminars, and partnered with Kits Cubed, an organization led by Oakland Tech alumnus Ahmed Muhammad, to put on a science and technology fair for Oakland students. One of the strengths of Oakland Student Service is that it doesn’t have a singular focus for the community service projects, Salvadei added.

Student volunteers with Oakland Student Service collaborated with Kits Cubed, another organization led by an OUSD graduate, to put on a STEM fair. Credit: Matteo Salvadei / Oakland Student Service

“We have the creativity and young minds of teenagers and all we have to do is dream big and we can do it,” he said.

Oakland Student Service has chapters at Oakland Tech, Skyline High School, San Leandro High School, Bishop O’Dowd High School, Head-Royce School, and a chapter coming soon at Oakland School for the Arts. 

For an upcoming work day at Verdese Carter Recreation Center in deep East Oakland, the group will be building 10 garden beds, painting the playground slide, picking up trash, and building Little Free Libraries, which are boxes in public that anyone can contribute books to or take books from. Students plan all the projects on their own, and rely on donations and resources at their schools. 

The garden beds for Verdese Carter will be constructed using wood from Head-Royce’s woodworking lab, which was secured by student leader Menim Utibe-Ukim.

“We wanted to take advantage of some of the Head-Royce resources for woodwork,” he said. “I coordinated getting the wood and tools from Head-Royce, and getting a supervisor there to help us construct the wood when we’re at the park.”

Students with Oakland Student Service repainted tables during a work day at Verdese Carter park in September. Credit: Dallas Alcorn / Oakland Student Service

For a previous park clean-up at Dimond Park, Salvadei said he called sand companies until he found one willing to donate sand to place in the playground. The Dimond Park event was the group’s biggest so far, involving 200 students, Salvadei said. They repainted the playground, revitalized the garden, and constructed new garden beds. Audrey Ohwobete, a senior at Bishop O’Dowd, reached out to the garden educators at her school for help with cleaning up the garden at the park.  

“There’s adult supervision but it’s student-led,” said Ohwobete. “It shows how much we can do as kids if we put our minds to it.”

The Verdese Carter park work day was scheduled for Dec. 3, but will be rescheduled because of the weather. Those interested in volunteering with Oakland Student Service can follow the group on social media for updates. Students who want to start a group chapter at their school can fill out an application on the organization’s website.  

Salvadei, the Oakland Tech student, said one of the most rewarding parts of leading the organization is seeing other students develop a passion for service. 

“Seeing, for example, one of my friends who doesn’t like to do anything and sits at home all day playing video games, be at an event at 8 a.m. sharp to pull weeds makes you feel successful,” he said. 

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.