Bill Crawford will never forget the gift he received, upon his retirement five years ago, from a student he had mentored years earlier.
The former Mountain View police officer unwrapped his gift — a Norman Rockwell print of a boy talking with a police officer — and asked his mentee why he got him that.
"He says, 'I wouldn't have graduated from high school if it hadn't been for you, plain and simple,'" Crawford recalled.
Crawford is a mentor with Partners for New Generations, or PNG, an organization that for 13 years has matched community members with students of all ages. PNG has some 50 tutors and 100 mentors working with students in elementary, middle and high schools in Mountain View and Los Altos.
Some of the students have academic problems, or problems at home. But some simply "want to be with a stable, successful adult who can be their friend, be someone they can talk to. Someone who is a support for them," said Linda Waub, a coordinator of the organization.
The more mentors PNG has, the more students they can help, says Carol Dorshkind, a coordinator in charge of recruitment.
The mentors take their students out to lunch, to museums, hiking, or they simply walk around and talk. The idea is to make students feel comfortable so that they can openly talk to someone who wants to help them succeed.
Crawford compares being a mentor to being a train's helper engine.
"You got a train going up a grade (that) can't pull up all those cars, so you put a helper engine in there," he said. "Get the train up to the top and the helper engine goes away and the train goes on its way because it got over the hill. That's what mentors are all about."
Partners for New Generations is among this year's Voice Holiday Fund recipients, and will use the money donated by Voice readers (and doubled through matching grants from local foundations) to pay for the initial training that mentors get before working with students. Often the money goes toward educational events — classes, speaking engagements and training on motivation and teen brain development — that PNG sends its mentors to.
During training, Waub warns mentors to put their ego aside, as some mentors may never see obvious results from the relationships they foster. Others, like Crawford, may not know the effect they had until years later.
Claire Donohoe, who has been mentoring one girl throughout her high school years, says it's been wonderful watching the girl, now a senior, achieve.
Donohoe, a Mountain View resident, takes her mentee to ballet and gives her tours of Mountain View. But mostly, she says, they just walk and talk. The key, she says, is to let the girl feel secure enough in the relationship to learn from Donohoe's past experiences and to ask advice when she needs it.
Tuck Younis, police chief of Los Altos, says he tries to be a sounding board for his mentee, an 18-year-old interested in police work. They talk about the student's goals and aspirations, as well as the challenges he faces as he grows up.
Younis jokes that he may get more out of the program than his mentee. Mentoring helps him to see intervention in a new light.
"So much of my work has obviously been the criminal element of prevention and intervention, but it's usually on a much more community-driven scale, where this is with an individual," he said. "I saw it as an opportunity to give back."