Vicky Nkinzi was always jealous when her older brother, Joseph, got picked up by his mentor from the John Andrew Mazie Memorial Foundation during his years at Framingham High.
“I didn’t really know what it was, I was like, ‘Oh he’s going out to eat and having fun,’ that’s all I knew,” said the first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Uganda. “I was like, ‘Well that’s awesome. I wish I could do that.’
“I was in middle school. I was in that weird phase.”
That so-called “weird phase” worried Nkinzi’s mother, Margaret Kiggala, who never considered that her daughter — a model student — could also benefit from the Mazie Memorial Foundation’s mentoring program, which typically works with students like her son, who was underachieving in the classroom and running with the wrong crowd outside the classroom. He is currently a junior at Bridgewater State University.
“She just didn’t fit in [socially] for some reason,” Kiggala said of her daughter, who will attend UMass Amherst in the fall on the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship. “It just scared me. It was like, ‘Wait a minute, why is this girl so afraid?’ Something there was not connecting.”
“All she did was read. She was bringing home good grades but there was something lacking. Something big lacking.”
The Mazie Mentoring Program has shaped at-risk or disadvantaged Framingham High students since 1998, a year after John Andrew Mazie was killed by a drunk driver at age 26. The program, which expanded to Waltham High in 2010, boasts a 90 percent graduation rate while more than 70 percent of its students go on to college or other post-secondary programs.
“It’s a very good program,” said Kiggala, an overnight nurse at MetroWest Medical Center who was shocked when Nkinzi was picked for mentorship her sophomore year — asking her daughter, “How did you get in?”
Nkinzi, 17, didn’t question her selection, saying to herself, “I’ll take all the help I can get.” And she clicked with her mentor, Donna Mollin of Northborough, immediately.
“I like that she is just as quirky as me,” Nkinzi said. “I really like that she likes the things that I like and she’s very open. We’re very open with each other. She’ll tell you as it is, and that’s helpful because not a lot of people tell you the truth.”
They share a love for spicy Chinese at Sichuan Gourmet in Framingham, which offers Nkinzi a kick not found in traditional Ugandan cooking. Mollin, 70, also introduced Nkinzi to a large Asian supermarket in Burlington and even invited Nkinzi to her Hanukkah party. The pair have regularly exceeded the eight hours per month they are required to spend together, doing activities together from shopping to community service.
“She’s not shy anymore,” said Mollin, who encouraged Nkinzi to take a job at Framingham’s McAuliffe Branch Library. “She definitely has more confidence in who she is.”
Mollin constantly tells Nkinzi to “know her worth” and not to let the families she babysits for underpay her.
“‘You have worth and your time is worth something,’” Mollin says.
‘All she did was read. She was bringing home good grades but there was something lacking.’
But Nkinzi has still been too bashful to ask for a raise.
“She gives me a pep talk about how important I am, but every time it comes to do it I always flail a little bit,” Nkinzi said. “I totally agree with her but it’s something I haven’t picked up myself. I’m still trying to figure out my worth.”
Mollin is a family friend of the Mazies and has helped the foundation in various ways over the years. She mentored one “troubled” teen who quit after a few months. Then she was paired with Nkinzi.
Mollin is often asked why Nkinzi, who carries a 4.03 GPA, is in the program.
“They felt Vicky had incredible potential and was a great student already,” Mollin said, “but needed greater exposure to the greater world beyond her family and Ugandan Church and so on.”
Nkinzi is active in youth groups at the St. Peters Church of Uganda in Belmont and the Celebration International Church in Wayland. She also helps recently immigrated Ugandan youths adjust to life in Massachusetts.
A few years ago, Nkinzi traveled to Uganda for the first time as a young adult to attend her half-brother’s wedding.
She fell in love with the climate and the beautiful landscape but, given the poverty there, she said, she is “blessed” that she was born in the United States. (Her parents both emigrated here separately before meeting in 1993.)
“But I also have little moments I wish I had that same kind of cultural enrichment that the others do,” she said. “My parents did a pretty good job with things but I wish I could speak the language and understand the culture. That is one thing I miss out on, but I’m glad I was born here because there are a lot of opportunities I have.”
Mollin said she will stay in touch with Nkinzi after she leaves for Amherst but will also miss Nkinzi’s regular company. And while Mollin likes to say that she got more from the relationship than she gave, Nkinzi —who aspires to be an obstetrician — said Mollin’s motivation was delivered subtly.
“I like that she knows I can do my best,” Nkinzi said. “That helps me to know she expects that of me. I know she doesn’t see that. There are some things she doesn’t see but they are there. I hope she knows everything she does help me with, whether she sees that or not.
“I have to make sure I tell her that.”Justin A. Rice can be reached at email@example.com.