Match made in heaven pairs empty-nester and Ukrainian teen

The conversation around Ronnie Zuckerberg’s dining room table has an easy give and take, the kind of talk between friends who are comfortable and close.

Punctuating her thoughts with broad gestures, Zuckerberg is describing her understandable jitters about a recent call from her grown son, informing her that, though safe, he’d just been robbed at gunpoint on the streets of New York.

Sitting cattycorner, Eugenya Kirovskaya leans forward attentively, agreeing that he was indeed lucky and that 2:30 a.m. is no time to be out in a gritty neighborhood. “I was a crazy mother inside, but I have to stay cool,” Zuckerberg said of the call while Kirovskaya nods in acknowledgement.

What makes this scene so different from so many other stand-by-me moments between tight pals?

For starters, Kirovskaya is all of 14.

The two met four years ago when Kirovskaya’s mom, a recent emigre from Ukraine, was looking for someone to help her young daughter with schoolwork and to learn the nuances of a new culture. A recent empty-nester, Zuckerberg was longing to have a child once again in her life.

They found each other through On the Mark, a mentoring program offered in San Francisco and the Peninsula by Parents Place at Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Started in 1997, the effort pairs adult volunteers with youngsters who need tutoring, help navigating social situations or simply a big buddy.

These days, the relationship between the 58-year-old interior designer and the eighth-grader at Brandeis Hillel Day School has bloomed far past pointers on topic sentences, colloquial expressions or even learning to swim. The two are soul mates.

“Yeah, this was a match made in heaven,” said Zuckerberg.

The pair easily spends five hours a week hanging out, routinely detouring from the business of reviewing Kirovskaya’s applications to private high schools to meander off on wide-ranging — and often animated — discussions.

“She can talk about all the things I like to talk about, from the most shallow thing to world events,” explained Zuckerberg. “She asks good questions.”

For her part, Kirovskaya, a talkative teen with a fondness for hoop earrings, has turned to her adult friend for advice about friendships, social spats and family issues. “I know that I personally can ask Ronnie everything,” said the teen. “I have asked her practically everything.”

Admittedly, not every mentor relationship produces such dream bonds — and from time to time, a few don’t work out at all. But an On the Mark organizer reports that many matches are extending well beyond the minimum commitment of an hourly visit each week for six months.

“What started out as a homework-help club has developed into more than that,” observed Ronit Drobey, volunteer coordinator. “We’ve developed some meaningful relationships.”

The S.F.-based program currently has about 35 matches, many of them pairing ex-Soviet children with adult volunteers. Last year, JFCS started a pilot program in Palo Alto that has spawned more than 20 matches.

“Some of them want help with homework. Some of them want kind of a big brother, big sister to hang out with. Some want both,” Drobey said.

Cindy Changar, a single mother in San Francisco, was looking for a male role model for her 8-year-old son, Antonio Perez, when she approached the agency this fall.

Antonio was hooked up with Toby Coppel, a 32-year-old senior vice president at Yahoo and a Jewish native of Belfast, Ireland.

So far, the two have kicked around a soccer ball, played tennis, browsed in a comic book store and most recently, spent a Sunday afternoon meandering through the Exploratorium.

It’s a first visit for Coppel, who moved to San Francisco three years ago, but Perez is an old hand at the science museum, confidently leading his mentor from one station to the next.

While Perez shoots basketballs through vision-distorting goggles at one stop, Coppel offers encouragement in a light brogue. “Hey, you’re good at this game.”

Coppel lets Antonio play a bit before kneeling down and gently asking him questions about the physics behind the display.

Coppel is aware that pairing a kid with an adult stranger isn’t necessarily a formula for instant chemistry.

“It’s a gradual process,” explained Coppel, who signed up as a mentor because he wanted to give back to the community and because he likes working with kids.

“It’s still early,” he said. “I’m not trying to force anything. I’m trying to build a relationship and assess his needs.”

Four years into their match, Kirovskaya’s mother, Ella, pronounces the bond between Zuckerberg and her daughter as a “pretty special relationship” that has spilled over into a larger family friendship. A laid-off software engineer, Ella Kirovskaya has helped Zuckerberg unravel computer glitches and the two families regularly get together for holidays and other celebrations.

“We help each other,” said Ella Kirovskaya, a single mother who moved to San Francisco from the former Soviet Union with her daughter and her parents in 1996. “I’m just happy that Eugenya has this friend and my family also got her family for friends.”

Across the bay, JFCS of the East Bay recently launched a mentor program of its own, pairing b’nai mitzvah students with Holocaust survivors and refugees. An early match between one boy and a survivor has “taken off,” according to volunteer coordinator Amy Mullin, and another is set to start soon.

While mentors for the San Francisco and Peninsula program run the gamut in age, On the Mark recently has gotten an influx of young Jews interested in volunteering, Drobey said. Rather than simply writing a donation check to a charitable cause, “I think they really want to see the impact that they’re making,” she said.

Ben Karlin, a 27-year-old business student at Stanford University, signed up as a mentor after hearing about the program through Hillel at Stanford. “I like working with kids and wanted to do something that was one-on-one,” said the Boston native.

He was paired last spring with an 11-year-old boy who was having a tough time following the death of his father.

“It’s mostly just like hanging-out time,” Karlin said, noting that the two have played pool, stopped by a hobby shop and gone out for ice cream during some of their weekly visits. “It’s working out very well.”

Zuckerberg and Kirovskaya still reminisce about the awkward moments and the uncomfortable silences that marked the start of their relationship. The ice was shattered one day when Zuckerberg suggested that they each draw pictures illustrating key events in their lives.

“Neither one of us has shut up since then,” cracked Zuckerberg.

Information about the On the Mark mentoring program in San Francisco and the Peninsula: (415) 359-2463. Information on the mentor program at JFCS of the East Bay: (510) 704-7480, ext. 742.