Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
It only took me a few moments to realize Mill Creek 16-year-old Natalie Mount is one sharp girl.
Our conversation focused on her four-year, pen-pal relationship she has maintained with Israel's Lia Silber. I quizzed Mount about why she put in the effort to keep the friendship going, especially at a time when any teenage girl has more responsibilities than she might want to handle.
Mount didn't pause very long before coming up with this gem.
"I can tell her more than my friends here," said Mount, who soon will enter her junior year at Lakewood Ranch High School. "And if she tells my secrets, it doesn't matter."
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Perhaps we should all have one of those, a friend who is separated from our peers, It's kind of like the old Home Improvement show where the voice of reason was separated from Tim Allen's main character by a fence. Only in this case, the fence is an ocean.
Longtime readers of The East County Observer might remember reading a 2014 story about Mount and Silber, who met when Silber attended a playwriting contest in Sarasota in May of that year. Both were sixth-graders at the time.
Sarasota and Silber's home city of Tel Mond, Israel are sister cities which decided to sponsor the playwriting contest. Silber showed up at Sarasota's Temple Emanu-El not knowing anyone.
A special dinner was held for Silber and the organizers worried she would be bored around a bunch of adults, so they asked Mount if she would show up at the event.
"I thought, 'Sure, OK, she probably doesn't know English," Mount said.
Nonetheless, she showed up and spent the night chatting with her new friend — in English.
They soon parted ways, promising to write letters and keep in contact. You know how that goes.
Living in a Facebook and Tweet age, it certainly is easier to keep in contact with those far away. In reality, though, how many of those social media blasts take any real thought? Give it a try. Next time you are sending a social media message, write six paragraphs.
Mount and Silber decided they were going to build a friendship, and they were going to do so by writing more than 10 words at a time. Off they went.
"I wasn't sure if it would last," said Mount's mom, Marni Mount. "I know Natalie is determined and when she finds a friend, near or far, she becomes a true, loyal friend."
So what do they write about?
"If we don't know what to talk about, we talk about school," Mount said.
Or boys, or family, or what they want to be in the future.
Mount, a 4.3 GPA student, wants to attend the University of Florida and eventually go into the medical field. Silber is headed toward her two-year commitment to the armed forces in Israel. Beyond that, she isn't sure.
Being so far apart can leave some gaps. While Mount is a competitive swimmer and plays the violin, she has no idea if Silber plays an instrument or has any interest in sports.
Mount said it doesn't matter. "It's always nice to have someone separate from the rest of (her peers)," she said. "I have friends who have come and gone. Lia has stuck."
Marni Mount knows another reason the pen-pal relationship has taken hold.
"Natalie always has been interested in Israel," she said. "And her personality works well with the girls who live there. Natalie is not a dramatic girl so she can relate to them."
Although a world away, Natalie Mount now relates to what's happening in Israel. And when she earned one of 12 spots awarded by the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee for the "Teen Mission to Israel" June,17-July 3, she wanted to visit her friend, and she found two hours for them to be together on a beach in Tel Mond.
"She definitely looked different," Mount said of Silber, who she hadn't seen since the Mount family took a trip to Israel two years ago. "And I think I grew. When I saw her it was 'Gosh, when did that happen?'"
Both have grown over the four years, and part of their positive development can be attributed to putting the effort into a pen-pal relationship, and a friendship. Marni Mount said she can see all the positive effects being a pen pal has had on her daughter.
Silber agreed in a text message she sent from Israel.
"If you don't have a pen pal yet, make one. It's worth it!"