As Nikoo and Connie put it, their relationship for the last three years is phasing out, but their friendship is something that will endure into the future.
Back when they first met, Nikoo Parsizadeh was 15 and had just emigrated from Iran to join her family in Mountain View. That culture shock would be a scary proposition for anyone, but especially for a teenage girl entering a foreign land and a high school with no friends and shaky English skills.
Meanwhile, Connie Webb was coming from the other side of life's arc. After emigrating from Germany decades ago, she had established a career for herself at Mountain View-Los Altos Adult School. She was entering her 50s with bittersweet feelings as she watched her two sons grow into adults. It was the typical case of the "empty nest" syndrome, and she was in a quest for new purpose.
The pair probably would never have met if not for the Mentor Tutor Connection, a local nonprofit that matches teens dealing with adversity with adult volunteers interested in taking them under their wing. The program operates much like the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, rooted in the idea that what struggling teens often need is someone who will just listen and try to understand them.
This year, Mentor Tutor Connection is one of seven local nonprofits picked as a beneficiary of the Voice's annual Holiday Fund. Donations to the fund are divided equally among these organizations, and will be matched by the Wakerly Family Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Lucile Packard Foundation. With the support of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, 100 percent of donations go directly to these nonprofits.
Those donations are particularly important for the Mentor Tutor Connection, which oversees about 140 volunteers across schools in the Mountain View and Los Altos area. Now entering its 20th year, the nonprofit is heavily involved at local elementary and middle schools, offering an array of tutoring services to help students succeed academically.
One area where the nonprofit really shines is its mentoring program for students like Nikoo who could benefit from an older guide. The mentorship program, which pairs teens with adults usually on a one-on-one basis, allows them to slowly develop a relationship that goes beyond schoolwork. The students may be facing economic hardship, poor family life or just general stress from life's school of hard knocks. Nikoo's struggle was similar to what any immigrant feels getting dropped in the thick of a new country.
In many ways, teens these days need broader life guidance for dealing with the setbacks and stress of society, said Carol Fisher, Mentor Tutor Connection executive director. That goal is especially important now as students face ever-mounting pressure to excel academically, she said.
"It's especially hard in this area," Fisher noted. "Now more than before, students have this expectation for perfection and a lot of self-inflicted stress goes with that."
Both women admit that they were wary at first when they were "connected" through Mentor Tutor Connection, asking: "Just who is this stranger I've been paired with?" But the relationship soon blossomed. Webb remembers that early on, the teenage girl was shy and almost overbearingly courteous, always trying to please those around her, sometimes to her own detriment. Over time, she built up the confidence to know and express herself.
"I needed to see what someone else can give me and learn from how they live," Parsizadeh said. "With Connie, her background was like mine, and that made me feel better."
Webb and Parsizadeh developed a routine of meeting up and doing something social about every other week. Early on, this would be a basic activity such as walking Webb's dog through the neighborhood or chatting at a coffee shop. Over time, they moved on to visiting museums, art festivals, even a zoo. Parsizadeh brought her mentor to the local Persian restaurant to show her native cuisine. One rule they set for themselves was to always try something new, Parsizadeh said.
For Webb, this experience offered a glimpse of another side of parenting that she never got from raising two sons. Tagging along with a teenage girl as she tried out prom dresses or chatted about life was revelatory, she said.
"Now I know all the shopping malls in the area," she laughed.
Now a high school senior, Parsizadeh is preparing to move to the next stage of her life, and she is already eying colleges. When she graduates, her mentor-tutor relationship with Webb officially ends, but both women are pledging it won't end there.
"The program is ending, but not our friendship," the teenager said.