Holiday Spirit

Friends for Youth mentor Christine Akhtar and mentee Joanna Solis in 2013. Courtesy Christine Akhtar.

Posted November 19, 2021

Friends for Youth is in the business of making human connections
Mentorship program helps strangers become friends

by Jocelyn Dong / Palo Alto Weekly

When Joanna Solis was 13, her favorite aunt died of ovarian cancer, and the sudden loss left Solis utterly bereft.

"She was like a second mom to me, and at that time, at 13, it's very hard to process something like that, especially having never come across anything death-related before," Solis, now 21, recalled this week.

None of her friends had gone through a similar loss, so they couldn't understand how she felt. "And I didn't feel like I could talk to my parents about it because they were dealing with adult issues of their own," Solis said.

That same summer, Christine Akhtar was searching for a way to give back to the community. She and her husband had moved from Chicago a few years earlier so he could attend graduate school at Stanford University.

"I had grown up just being around a lot of kids' gatherings where we had cool mentors and ... just people to look up to," Akhtar said. "And throughout my early 20s, I was kind of teaching classes at church and just liked to hang out with that middle school/high school age group. ... I felt like I had the personality for that age group — a little sarcastic, not taking things too seriously — whereas their parents or older figures might not be people that they would confide in."

Enter the Palo Alto nonprofit organization Friends for Youth , a mentorship program that has been pairing adults and kids ages 8 to 17 since 1979. Through a matching process that Akhtar remembers as rigorous, including safety checks and assessments of interests, Akhtar and Solis were paired with one another.

"We instantly hit it off," Solis recalled. "I feel like I really got lucky. She's probably one of the most awesome and nicest people I have ever met."

At the time, they shared passions for Pinterest, baking and getting their nails done.

"Christine is just a very 'soft' person overall. So I felt instantly very comfortable around her, and she was super nice and understanding and was very easy to talk to," Solis said.

Every year, Friends for Youth matches anywhere from 30 to 50 mentors with mentees, asking them to commit to spending time together for at least six months. More than 85% of them do. And some continue on for years. The organization states it currently serves about 300 mentors, mentees and their families, or 1,200 people from San Francisco to San Jose.

This past year, it received a $3,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund to increase its capacity to aid youth.

"Mentoring and positive relationships are needed now more than ever in the midst of the pandemic, skyrocketing rates of depression and social isolation, and plummeting emotional well-being of our kids and their families," Cecilia Chu, the organization's executive director, wrote in the group's application for a Holiday Fund grant.

To help the mentors and mentees bond, the nonprofit offers mentor trainings and gives away free tickets to events and local cultural institutions (mentors and mentees agree to follow strict COVID-19 safety protocols). Akhtar and Solis spent a day at the Monterey Aquarium and participated in a clean-up event at a zoo, among other events.

But it was the more mundane activities that have meant the most to Solis and Akhtar.

"Honestly, the times that I think we got the closest were just, like, running errands," Akhtar said. "You know, running silly errands and being in the car, where you really get to chat and learn about each other's lives."

Sometimes, those simple things make the biggest impact, Solis agreed.

"I remember we went back to her apartment (once), and we watched a movie and we baked cookies. I remember to this day how delicious those cookies were," Solis said. Unlike going to outside events, "it was more about the connections we were building — and the memories."

Recent research is revealing the impact that a mentor can have on a young person's life. It's not just Solis who has benefited from having an adult to lean on.

The Minnesota-based nonprofit organization Search Institute, which promotes positive youth development and advances equity through research and practical solutions, has found that positive relationships are essential to helping young people succeed and contribute to their communities.

"After decades of conducting surveys, analyzing data, and writing journal articles, Search Institute researchers and practitioners have arrived at a surprisingly simple conclusion: nothing — nothing — has more impact in the life of a child than positive relationships," said Peter L. Benson, the creator of Developmental Assets and former Search Institute president and CEO.

It's now been eight years since Akhtar and Solis met. Akhtar has become a mother of four, and Solis is studying respiratory therapy in college and working part-time at Town & Country Village in Palo Alto.

Over time, their relationship has evolved into a close mutual friendship, they said.

"When I was 13, (our conversation would) be about shows and just little things. And now if I have any questions having to do with adult life, like credit cards and things like that ... it's something that I can go to her about," Solis said.

The pair also talk about broader societal issues, including race relations. Solis is Mexican American and Akhtar is Filipina American.

"I feel like she and I can also bond and talk a lot about certain issues that are going on in the world right now. And I feel like we have really great conversations," Solis said.

Recently the pair celebrated Solis' 21st birthday with a dinner at Sundance the Steakhouse in Palo Alto. It was a special way to celebrate a special person who has come into her own, someone whom Akhtar describes as a good friend to others, loyal, kind, sweet and mature beyond her years.

"I'm just in awe of her ability to rise above any of the challenges that she's been through. Her wanting to be somebody for her own self has been awesome to see develop," she said.

Reflecting on her role as a mentor, Akhtar said she's learned how to give wise advice to Solis while not crossing the line into trying to be her parent — especially when sensitive topics arise.

If there's reassurance Akhtar can give to prospective mentors, it's that just showing up and caring is enough.

"I'm a person who likes giving gifts. But I've realized that those things, those grand gestures, are not necessary to form a genuine, meaningful relationship," she said. "It's really just being there as a support for them."

"They just need you to be around. And they need you to be just a constant presence — somebody who will listen."

Make a donation
2021 Recipient Agency

All Students Matter$25,000

Ada's Café$25,000

Youth Community Service$25,000

DreamCatchers$25,000

East Palo Alto Tennis & Tutoring$20,000

Pursuit of Excellence$20,000

Ravenswood Education
Foundation
$20,000

WeHOPE$20,000

East Palo Alto Kids Foundation$15,000

Foundation for a
College Education
$12500

Buena Vista
Homework Club
$10,000

CASSY$10,000

Community Legal Services
in East Palo Alto
$10,000

Nuestra Casa$10,000

San Francisco 49ers Academy $10,000

St. Elizabeth Seton School$10,000

YMCA - East Palo Alto Branch$10,000

Fresh Approach$10,000

Hidden Villa$10,000

Reading Partners$10,000

Rise Together Education$10,000

Peninsula Volunteers$10,000

Adolescent Counseling Services$7500

East Palo Alto
Academy Foundation
$7500

Kara$7500

Learning Home Volunteers$7500

Live in Peace$7500

Midpeninsula Community
Media Center
$7500

Peninsula
HealthCare Connection
$7500

WomenSV$7500

Acknowledge Alliance$5,000

Art in Action$5,000

Art of Yoga$5,000

Bay Area Friendship Circle$5,000

Alta Housing $5,000

Bayshore Christian Ministries$5,000

Big Brothers Big Sisters$5,000

CASA of San Mateo County$5,000

Canopy$5,000

Environmental Volunteers$5,000

Family Connections$5,000

Girls To Women$5,000

Music in the Schools Foundation$5,000

Musikiwest$5,000

Morrissey-Compton
Educational Center
$5,000

Palo Alto Art Center
Foundation
$5,000

Palo Alto Chamber
Orchestra
$5,000

Palo Alto Players$5,000

Rich May Foundation$5,000

Silicon Valley Bicycle Exchange$5,000

East Palo Alto Library $5,000

Street Life Ministries$5,000

TheatreWorks$5,000

Vista Center for
Blind & Visually Impaired
$5,000

Fit Kids Foundation$5,000

Friends of Junior Musuem & Zoo$5,000

Herban Health$5,000

Jasper Ridge Farm$5,000

Karat School Project $5,000

Magical Bridge Foundation$5,000

Marine Science Institute$5,000

Palo Alto Music Connection$5,000

My New Red Shoes$5,000

Pacific Art League$5,000

East Palo Alto Library$5,000

Peninsula Bridge Program$5,000

Rebuilding Together Peninsula$5,000

Rosalie Rendu Center$5,000

Silicon Valley
Urban Debate League
$5,000

St. Francis of Assisi
Youth Club
$5,000

Christmas Bureau$3500

Friends for Youth$3,000

Blossom Birth$2500

Pets in Need$2500

Child Care Grants

AbilityPath$10,000

All Five$10,000

Children's Center of
the Stanford Community
$5,000

Grace Lutheran Preschool$10,000

Palo Alto Friends Nursery School$10,000

Parents Nursery School$10,000

The Learning Center$10,000

Scholarship

HS scholarships$16,000


As of January 14th, 323 donors have contributed $702,377 to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund.
* indicates amount withheld

38 Anonymous134,110

Previous Donors


Jlovuolo- Bhushan25
Carolyn Williams200
Lenore Jones100
Bonnie Packer100
Rosalie Shepherd100
Karen Olson250
Richard Zuanich100
Janis Ulevich125
Lovinda Blohm20
Larry Hyde*
Vickie Martin100
Thomas Rindfleisch*
Eileen & Rick Brooks1,000
Connie Fasani100
Sara Hammond100
Graceann Johnson100
Irene Kane100
Jan Thompson & Roy Levin250
John Tang*
Ed & Linda De Meo500
Micki & Bob Cardelli*
Patti Yanklowitz150
John & Mary Schaefer100
Judy Kramer*
Penny & Greg Gallo500
Marc & Margaret Cohen300
Harriet Benson10,000
The Dong Family200
Elaine & Eric Hahn*
Stephanie Klein & Larry Baer*
Bill Reller *
Bruce & Jane Gee250
Arthur Keller500
Bruce & April Robinson*
Lawrence Yang & Jennifer Kuan10,000
Richard Johnsson5,000
Bruce & Mary Beth Train1,000
Julius Guccione100
Leo & Marlys Keoshian250
Sally O'Neil & Ken Bencala100
Carolyn Brennen*
Linda & Steve Boxer*
Diane Moore*
David & Betsy Fryberger*
Alicia Newman250
Karen & Steve Ross*
Charles & Barbara Stevens*
Wileta Burch30
Constance Crawford350
Fischgrund Family200
Amado Padilla250
Xiaofan Lin50
Neilson Buchanan500
Patrick Burt500
Marcia Katz200
Scott and Jan Kilner500
Andrea Smith100
Harry and Susan Hartzell100
Steven Feinberg10,000
Kenyon Family250
Ellmann Family 100
Richard Alexander1,000
Ann and Don Rothblatt500
Keith Clarke*
Roger Smith400
Roger Warnke300
Betsy & George Bechtel150
Tess & Eric Byler100
Barbara Harriman Spreng500
Bruce Campbell200
Phillip Hanawalt1,000
Michael Havern5,000
Sylvia Gartner100
Lisa Akselrad25
M D Savoie500
Judith Ousterhout150
Joan Jack100
Page & Ferrell Sanders100
Mahlon & Carol Hubenthal350
Tom & Patricia Sanders*
William Debord2,000
Robert Aulgur1,000
Jeanne & Leonard Ware*
Ellen & Tom Ehrlich250
Jan & Freddy Gabus250
Gwen Luce*
Barbara & Robert Simpson*
Priscilla & Tony Marzoni*
Dorothy Saxe*
Kay & Don Remsen*
Hal & Iris Korol*
Roy & Carol Blitzer*
Mindy & David Sitzer*
Marilyn Simbeck*
Bill Johnson & Terri Lobdell2,000
Jody Maxmin*
Angelo Family Foundation5,000
Barbara Klein*
Dorothy Deringer200
Katherine and Dorsey Bass200
Patrick Burt500
Ruby Zefo500
Carli Scott100
David Kalkbrenner*
Nancy & Joe Huber*
Richard Baumgartner & Elizabeth Salzer*
Debby Roth200
Cathy & Howard Kroymann250
Wendy Sinton*
Linda & Jerry Elkind500
Julie & Jon Jerome*
Allen Smith & Ann Burrell*
Anne & Charlie Williams150
Jerry & Bobbie Wagger*
Gerald & Joyce Barker200
Brigid Barton & Rob Robinson1,000
Ellen & Mike Turbow200
Jim & Valerie Stinger250
Sally & Craig Nordlund500
George & Betsy Young*
Vic Befera100
Edward Kanazawa300
Kingston Duffie & Liz Schwerer500
Susie Richardson & Hal Luft250
Susan Kemp250
John Antoun1,500
Debbie Mytels100
Donald Barr*
Donna Silverberg200
Susan & Doug Woodman200
Pat & Rich Douglas50
Leannah Hunt250
Ted & Ginny Chu*
Diana Diamond500
Diane Doolittle*
Barbara Riper*
Leif & Sharon Erickson500
Dena Hill500
Christine Prior100
Michael Kieschnick1,000
Nancy Rossen150
Sallie & Jay Whaley*
David McCalmont1,000
Lynn Newman100
Barbara Allen100
Richard Smallwood1,000
Becky & Ted Baer250
Marcie Brown100
Ken & Michele Dauber1,000
Hoda Epstein*
Catherine Dolton150
A C & Kathryn Johnston500
Martha Shirk1,100
Ron & Melanie Wilensky500
Ralph Wheeler300
Nancy & Jim Baer*
Anne & Don Vermeil*
Joan Norton*
Katherine Bryant*
Daniel & Janis Tuerk*
Tom & Nancy Fiene100
Beth & Peter Rosenthal*
Chris & Beth Martin*
Nancy Tuck2,000
Diane & David Feldman750
Christina Kenrick2,500
Penelope Barrett100
Steve and Noel Beitler150
Diane and Brandy Sikic450
Susan Levenberg180
Elizabeth Weingarten50
Joan Regalado100
Susan Kaye200
Barbara Kinsey400
Susan Thomas500
David Hoexter100
Susan Elgee500
Romola Georgia*
Katherine Jarvis250
Catherine Ballantyne*
Bonnie Berg500
Nancy Moss250
Mr. and Mrs. John J. McLaughlin100
Dr. Teresa L. Roberts1,000
Sally Hewlett Fund1,000
Peter B. Giles250
Kay Sabin*
Margo Sensenbrenner*
Gwen Barry*
Susan Yee*
Jean MacDonel200
The UMOC Charitable Fund250,000
Gavin & Tricia Christensen*
Jeremy Platt & Sandra Murphy300
Loni Freeman & Stephen Monismith*
Werner Graf2,000
Kim Harvey2,000
Feinstein Family1,000
Phil Fernandez & Daniel Sternbergh*
Virginia & Jim Fruchterman250
Karen Backer500
Christina Holt250
Peak-Filseth Charitable Fund500
Curt & Margaret Weil1,000
Wachtel Family1,000
Mary Lemmon25,000
Eric Keller & Janice Bohman500
Richard & Barbara Van Dusen Family Fund500
Fran Codispoti250
Deborah Williams & Jean Luc Laminette1,000
Brennan Family500
Herbert Fischgrund100
Claire & Ed Lauing250
John & Martha McLaughlin200
Rob Colley & Kate Godfrey*
Glenda & Gordon Hughes*
In Memory Of

Er-Ying and YC Yen250
Jim and Dottie Mellberg250
E. Yanosh Alt20
Millie Rose Coldenhoff100
Edward & Elizabeth Buurma*
Leonard Ely500
Boyd Paulson Jr.*
Phillip Zschokke100
Mary Floyd*
Carol Berkowitz*
Pam Grady250
Lily & Phillip Gottheiner*
Kathy Morris*
August King*
Duncan Matteson1,000
David Mitchell*
Mason & Ryan*
Ian Halliday*
Ted Linden300
Florence K. Ho2,500
Mae & Al Kenrick500
Ray Bacchetti300
Marilyn D. Hansen200
Catherine Chow*
Emmett Lorey*
Betty Meltzer30
Ruth & Chet Johnson*
Nancy & Robert Lobdell*
Bob Kirkwood*
Gary Fazzino200
Don & Marie Snow*
Dr. Richard Greene200
Robert O. Jack500
Ruth C. Satterthwaite*
Jack Sutorius500
The Tinney Family250
Hannah & Helen Peterson50
Beverly Aarts*
Thomas W. & Louise L. Phinney*
Leo & Sylvia Breidenbach*
Tom Nolan Esq.100
Bob Merkevitch*
Bob Donald300
In Honor Of

Billee Werby100
Jill & Brian Bicknell*
Marilyn Sutorius500
Emma & Rich Pompetti500
As a Gift for

Dr. Ned Lund100
Street Cleaners100
Logan Marsh & Gabby Perez2,500
Businesses & Organizations

Packard Foundation25,000
Hewlett Foundation25,000
Palo Alto Business Park*
Perry Foundation 10,000
Arrillaga Foundation10,000
Alta Mesa Cemetery & Funeral Home2,500
Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run36,900
Sponsors of Moonlight Run:
  Stanford Health Care10,000
  Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati Foundation5,000
  Sutter Health/
Palo Alto Medical Foundation5,000
  Wealth Architects5,000
  Facebook5,000
  Deleon Realty5,000
  Kaiser Permanete5,000
  Stanford Federal Credit Union5,000
  Lakin Spears2,000
  Bank of the West1,500
Bleibler Properties LLC500
deLemos Properties LLC200
Johnson & Johnson Foundation1,000

Past Holiday Fund Grant Recipients

2018-2019 | 2017-2018 | 2016-2017 | 2015-2016 | 2014-2015 | 2013-2014 | 2012-2013 | 2011-2012 | 2010-2011 | 2009-2010 | 2008-2009 | 2007-2008 | 2006-2007 | 2005-2006 | 2004-2005 | 2003-2004 | 2002-2003 | 2001-2002 | 2000-2001 | 1999-2000