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Holiday Fund: Mentor Tutor Connection pairs local teens with adult mentors

While some teens might be a little puzzled at the prospect of having a mentor, Juan Marin-Melo had a good idea of what to expect. His older sister, now in college, was paired with a volunteer from Mentor Tutor Connection while in high school, and they'd formed a strong bond. As a freshman at Los Altos High School, when he heard the local nonprofit was holding sign-ups, Marin-Melo said he was excited about the opportunity.

Mentor Tutor Connection paired Marin-Melo with retired Los Altos businessman Sam Harding. Sitting companionably over hot drinks at a Los Altos coffee shop on a recent afternoon, both Harding and Marin-Melo, now a high school senior, said they've gotten a lot out of the experience.

"Sam has become a really good friend, I trust him. He's introduced me to many things," Marin-Melo said.

Harding, whose children are grown, said he relishes the chance to stay connected to the younger generation, even if it's just to shoot the breeze about life, movies and sports.

"In high school today, there's a lot of competition, lot of stress. It's hard to know all the ways to navigate through it ... (a mentor) can help out," Harding said.

While Mentor Tutor Connection sends volunteer academic tutors into elementary and middle schools -- it serves every school in the Mountain View Whisman and Los Altos school districts -- mentors for high school students often serve a more informal role. For aspiring first-generation college students, it can be helpful just to have regular access to an adult who's been to college and can demystify the experience. Mentors can be an entry point to the kind of networks that lead to internships or scholarship opportunities, or offer a window into career paths that a teen wouldn't otherwise hear about. Harding, a business owner who's long been an active member of the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce in Los Altos, got Marin-Melo involved in the Silicon Valley West Enterprise Leadership Conference, a four-day event that introduces high school juniors to the business world and culminates in small groups pitching a business plan.

"I wouldn't have done it without Sam," Marin-Melo said.

But for the teen, the benefits are also as simple as unwinding over hot chocolate with Harding at a local coffee shop, which he says helps him deal with the pressures of high school.

"Without having someone to talk to and check in every week, it would be a little more stressful for me. Sam always checks on me," he said. "It's so nice having this once a week, someone to talk to."

Mentor Tutor Connection is one of seven local nonprofits that benefits from the Voice's annual Holiday Fund. Donations are divided equally among the organizations, and the fund is administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, with 100 percent of donations going directly to the nonprofits.

Donations are particularly important for Mentor Tutor Connection, according to Linda Eckols, who chairs the organization's board of directors. The roughly $180,000 annual budget is funded largely by donations from individuals, foundations and community and holiday funds.

Founded in 1995 by the Los Altos Rotary Club, the nonprofit is heavily involved in local elementary and middle schools, reaching over 500 students in the past school year through an array of tutoring services, and has program coordinators at the three Mountain View-Los Altos High School District campuses, Eckols said. Additional volunteer mentors are always needed, so students who want to be paired up aren't stuck on a waiting list.

The next volunteer information session is set for noon on Tuesday, Jan. 15, at the El Camino YMCA and includes lunch. More information is available online at mentortutorconnection.org.

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