Making a strong connection

Mentor Tutor Connection links teens with caring role models, younger kids with tutors

After Juakita Berkley and her family moved to Mountain View, she started searching for a mentorship program to join. Back in Dallas, she had started up a youth mentoring program and she said she wanted to continue volunteering in her new home. A bit of searching online led her to Mentor Tutor Connection, a nonprofit that has provided Mountain View and Los Altos youth with tutoring and mentoring programs since it was founded in 1995 by the Los Altos Rotary Club.

"It's a wonderful program, I've been impressed," Berkley said. "It's been a really rewarding experience."

An educator and former assistant principal who's currently a full-time mom raising three children, Berkley said she benefited greatly from the guidance of college-educated mentors as she was growing up, and she wanted to return to favor to the next generation. Through Mentor Tutor Connection she was paired with Hailey Wilson, a junior at Mountain View High School, in October.

Sitting outside a local Starbucks on a sunny December morning, Berkley and Wilson chatted about college applications, career goals and prom dresses. Wilson said that when she heard about the mentoring program, she decided it would be "a great opportunity" to have someone to talk to about college, other than her friends and her mom.

"It's easier with an adult who's been there," she said.

Being paired with 16-year-old Wilson has also helped Berkley feel more like a part of the community in her new hometown, she said. Wilson is a cheerleader, and Berkely and her family went to their first Mountain View High School football game to see her perform.

Wilson said that when she was younger she wanted to be a nurse, but now aims to become a doctor, and plans to study biology as an undergraduate. Although they've only been paired for a couple of months, Berkley has already connected Wilson with an obstetrician/gynecologist and arranged a tour of El Camino Hospital. Berkley is also encouraging her to apply for internships.

"It's all about exposure," said Berkely. "You don't know what all is out there until you can experience it."

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, so 100 percent of donations go directly to the nonprofits.

Donations are particularly important for Mentor Tutor Connection, which oversees about 160 volunteers across schools in the Mountain View and Los Altos area, according to Linda Eckols, who chairs organization's board of directors. The nonprofit is heavily involved at local elementary and middle schools, reaching nearly 500 students in the past year through an array of tutoring services.

"We functioned as an organization that was volunteer-based for 19 years this is our 20th and we felt we had grown enough to hire an executive director," Eckols said.

Executive Director Padma Gargeya, who was hired Nov. 1 for the half-time position, comes from another mentoring organization, East San Jose-based Bright Futures. That brings the total paid staff at Mentor Tutor Connection to five, all of whom work part-time, Eckols said. The group's annual budget of about $160,000 comes from donations, support from family foundations and the Voice's Holiday Fund.

The organization serves every school in the Mountain View Whisman and Los Altos school districts, and has program coordinators at the three Mountain View-Los Altos High School District campuses, Eckols said.

Lately, tutors who work with the elementary school children say their students are a little needier that in the past. "That reflects what's going on at home," Eckols said, especially when there's a single parent or two parents working long hours who don't have time to support their children's schoolwork. "That's what makes our program even more valuable, in terms of the support (we offer)."

Demand for the program is strong, with requests for mentors outstripping the number of available volunteers. Eckols said there's a chronic shortage of men to pair with male high school students, as most of Mentor Tutor Connection's volunteers are female.

"We're constantly recruiting, we're always looking for volunteers," she said. "I hate to have people make a request for assistance and then they have to wait."

Many of the people who volunteer are mothers whose children have grown and left home, she said. But that's not always the case. Berkley, for one, has young children.

"I'd recommend that more people join the program, even if they have children of their own. It's a whole different situation when you're not the parent," she said.

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