Los Altos High School junior Isabella Meza-Perez knew about Mentor Tutor Connection long before she got matched with a mentor of her own. She watched as her older sister and cousins took part in the program and saw the relationships that were built as a result. Her now 22-year-old sister is still in contact with her mentor years after graduating high school.
It was cool to see the experiences her relatives had with their mentors, Meza-Perez said. Now, she is getting the same chance herself.
In the roughly one year since getting paired with mentor Emily Chen, the two have done an array of activities together, including teaching each other new recipes, exploring potential career options for Meza-Perez and going on a picnic.
"It's just cool to have someone who's not an educator be an adult to have conversations with," Meza-Perez said.
That's one of the goals of the program. Established in 1996, Mentor Tutor Connection recruits and trains volunteers to mentor students in the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, with the goal of providing caring adults who will make an impact in young people's lives.
"The mentor's role is to be there for them, to meet them where they are, to listen without judgment, and to support and encourage and guide them," Executive Director Carol Olson said.
Mentor Tutor Connection also operates a tutoring program that serves elementary and middle school students in the Los Altos and Mountain View Whisman districts.
The Los Altos-based nonprofit is one of seven beneficiaries of the Mountain View Voice's annual Holiday Fund. Through the charitable giving drive, readers can make donations to support groups doing important work in the community.
The Mountain View Voice and Silicon Valley Community Foundation cover all administrative costs to run the Holiday Fund, allowing donations to go entirely to the nonprofits. Last year, the Voice's Holiday Fund raised $84,000.
The mentors who volunteer with Mentor Tutor Connection act as supportive adults for students who is facing challenges in their life, Olson said, often helping their mentee to see their own potential.
"That's really a big part of what our mentors do – helping a person see the potential that maybe they haven't seen in themselves yet," Olson said.
In the younger grades, tutors work with students who have both academic and economic needs. According to Olson, the idea is to focus on students who could use help in their classes, but can't afford private tutoring.
"Our program is really to help those kids catch up and to feel confident and supported and empowered and to really engage in school," Olson said. "We feel that if we support kids who are not as confident and engaged in school early on, that's going to serve them so well in their futures."
Key to Mentor Tutor Connection's success is the close partnerships that they have formed with the three school districts in which they operate, Olson said. Typically, the mentors work one-on-one with around 115 high school students each year. About 300 elementary and middle school students were involved in the tutoring program annually before the pandemic, but that was down to around 140 last year, Olson said, which she attributed in part to Mountain View Whisman's now-relaxed restrictions on on-campus volunteers.
She expects the number to increase, noting that the demand for Mentor Tutor Connection's work has only grown as students grapple with the academic and emotional impacts of the pandemic.
"We are this year finding that the demand for tutors and mentors from the schools is greater than ever," Olson said.
During the pandemic, Mentor Tutor Connection pivoted to offering mentorship and tutoring online. According to Olson, the organization got a "tremendous" outpouring of support from the community, with volunteers stepping up to help kids out during remote learning.
"There was a lot of work to really come up to speed and get us going online, but we did it quickly," Olson said. "Our tutors were so willing and wanting to support kids, because we all knew that they needed it."
While the support that the nonprofit provided during the pandemic was critical for students, Olson said that there's a lot more joy now that mentors can meet with students face-to-face.
Mentors and mentees often pick activities based on shared interests, Olson said. Meza-Perez and Chen both like to cook, so Chen taught Meza-Perez how to make dumplings for Chinese New Year and Meza-Perez showed Chen how to make her sister's recipe for brown butter chocolate chip cookies.
Both Meza-Perez and Chen said they enjoy that their interactions don't focus solely on academics, but rather on their lives more broadly.
Chen said that she feels lucky to get to spend time with Meza-Perez and is constantly impressed by her mentee's level of maturity and thoughtfulness.
Raised in Fremont, Chen decided to volunteer with Mentor Tutor Connection after moving back to the Bay Area two years ago. Mentoring Meza-Perez has given her a chance to give back, but also to explore the area again after many years away.
"It opens up this new world where I get to share these kinds of experiences with someone who can really enjoy them and benefit from them too," Chen said.
Though Chen's mentorship of Meza-Perez isn't limited to academics, she does help her stay focused on her goals at school and also to consider her options after graduation.
Meza-Perez enjoyed taking chemistry last year and has an interest in makeup, so Chen set up a conversation for her with a cosmetic chemist. Meza-Perez said that she enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the field.
Since meeting Chen, Meza-Perez said she's appreciated the chance to have an outside adult perspective and to have someone invested in her future.
"I like hanging out with her because she gives me a lot of advice and she actually cares about me and my success," Meza-Perez said.
For more information about the Holiday Fund and to make a donation, visit mv-voice.com/holidayfund.