One Chance to Make Change

The following is a guest post written by Niles Xi’an Lichtenstein, entrepreneur and Summer Search Bay Area alumnus. It was originally shared at a Summer Search fundraising event. Lightly edited and shared with permission.


Hi everyone, I’m Niles Lichtenstein, a Summer Search Bay Area alum.

Niles Lichtenstein

While ‘Summer Search Alum’ is an amazing title to have, perhaps the best title I’ve recently received was the title of ‘Dad’ to my wonderful daughter Genevieve, who we call ‘Evie’.

Evie was born 11 months ago and upon her birth, my mother, as she smiled at a future generation strong female, said something profound to me. She said that “having a granddaughter felt like having a second chance.”

“A second chance for what?” I asked her.

“A second chance to give Evie all the things I couldn’t always give you,” she replied.

Niles-FamilyNiles, Alicia and Evie, and Grandma Siew-Hwa with Evie after she was born.

My mom had immigrated from Malaysia, escaping a pre-arranged marriage and a two-room apartment for a family of 10. She and my father gave me a lot more than they had growing up, but when both my father and my mother fell ill, I became the primary caretaker in the household at the age of 12 – there was little support to lean on with my little brother being only six at the time. We did the best we could as we watched our father battle cancer and our mother suffer the mental burden of watching her partner pass away, while overcoming her own physical challenges.

Sleep was rare throughout my middle school years and I saw things no kid should have to see, so when my father passed there was a deep sense of loss, but it was also a relief. That relief was short-lived as 30 days later I dove head-first into Berkeley High School, a school of 3,500 students, a school that was amazing and diverse, but one that had a history of disparate outcomes and an attitude of sink or swim.

Life became a constant race to try and catch the future, while running away from my past — a race to help my mom get better and brother grow up, a race to stay on top of both household bills and schoolwork, and a race that left little time to deal with my own trauma. The only breaks came when Summer Search literally took me out of my environment, both physically on summer trips and mentally through weekly mentoring.

My first summer trip took me to Alaskan Wilderness leadership training in the Prince William Sound where for the first time I had the space to feel emotions about having lost my father. My second trip pushed me beyond my perceived limits, trekking up to 19,000 feet and building a school in Nepal. In those Himalayan villages, I had an opportunity to connect with others and myself in ways I had never known were possible. For over two months I never owned a mirror, yet to this day that period in Nepal was one of my most reflective.

Niles in Nepal on an international service programNiles in Nepal on his second summer experience.

I returned home from Nepal revived and inspired, but in a school of thousands, my personal triumph was one story of many, one folder in a cabinet of hundreds that wanted a brighter future. Fortunately, the team at Summer Search, led by Sandy Peoples at the time, supported me through the college process. I even got my first lesson in negotiation, by leveraging a full ride from Stanford to get a similar package from Harvard where I ultimately went.

As I arrived on campus in Cambridge, waiting at my door was a new computer. A laptop with a note from a Summer Search donor, a note I still have today, because it reminded me that people could literally deliver kindness and generosity even if you had never met.

Niles and Linda MornellNiles with Summer Search founder Linda Mornell at the 2016 Bay Area Gala.

But unlike Summer Search today, the program in 2001 hadn’t evolved to help students through college. Without that support I was left with deep moments of isolation, uncertainty and a lack of understanding on where to get help, something that seemed intuitive to those around me who had more resources and guidance. Summer Search did teach me that I could push through anything, so I graduated on time, but this is why I’m personally so enthusiastic about how Summer Search has made college success a critical part of how they help young people thrive.

After college, Summer Search and I found each other again, and again, and again. From connecting me with mentors after college, to allowing me to become a mentor myself to other Summer Search students, this organization has continued to provide opportunities to grow. Several years after coming back home to the Bay Area, I had the honor of joining the Bay Area Board – which has taught me so much about nonprofit stewardship and given me a whole new professional community.

Niles and Bob FriendNiles with Bob Friend, longtime Summer Search supporter and former board member.

Summer Search also gave me the support I needed in starting my company, Enwoven, a New York Times funded start-up that reimagines how companies capture, organize and weave insights and institutional knowledge to improve everyday operations. Summer Search became a place I could prototype my initial ideas and the Summer Search community has become some of my most trusted advisors, mentors, and investors.

My personal mission with Summer Search has been to find ways to activate our alumni base to create a sustainable foundation of energy, resources, and love for Summer Search and its students. Through the launch of the Alumni Donor Society we have pushed our alumni to reach higher goals of financial giving – building a community around philanthropy.

To date we have 87 alumni who give $500 or more each year, and hundreds more who give other personally meaningful amounts. I’m proud to watch our progress with alumni grow. I think many of you will agree that one of the best indicators of success is when the people who were supported by a program are among the first to step up and support it.

When my mother turned to me and, with both joy and a hint of sorrow, told me “Having Evie as my granddaughter feels like a second chance,” it made me think about all those who don’t really get a second chance… all those who only have one chance:

One chance at escaping environments that will never allow them to tap into their full potential;

One chance at changing not only their life, but also the lives of generations after them, just like Evie and me;

One chance at finding what gives them purpose and bringing that purpose to the world.

Most of the time we only get one chance and I believe if we were given that chance, we need to ensure that we give that chance to others.

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