George Lewis knew next to nothing about autism when he met the little boy who would plant the seed for his Eagle Scout project.
George was 15 and teaching for the summer in Massachusetts at a sailing school on Cape Cod, where his family has a vacation home. The head instructor took him aside and asked if he would work one-on-one with 8-year-old Jeb Bartlett.
Jeb has autism. It makes paying attention difficult when he's in a big group of kids.
It also makes it impossible for him to participate in the activities that keep his siblings busy through the school year. His mom thought sailing might be different, something the family could do together. She enrolled Jebby at Stage Harbor Sailing School.
"My big goal was for him to just stay till noon every day. Two hours," says Sonja Bartlett of Rye, N.Y.
With George by his side, Jeb stayed. He learned nautical nomenclature and how to tie knots.
"All I wanted was for him to not bail, and at the end of the summer," Sonja says, "he came home with a big trophy!"
Jeb won the Sportsmanship Award for his great attitude. His mom cried.
George, now 17, spent the summers of 2011 and 2012 teaching Jeb to sail. A resident of Palma Ceia and a junior at Berkeley Preparatory School, he's a tall, good-looking kid who plays lacrosse and has been sailing and Scouting since he was little. He hopes to go to Vanderbilt and major in business or finance.
Working with Jeb was difficult at first, he concedes.
"It was hard to get him focused. He'd run off every couple minutes."
So George dug in. He took Jeb to baseball games. They bicycled downtown. When Jeb tripped over a rowboat and landed in the emergency room, George and his brothers showed up at his house with bags of candy.
That was the best day of the whole summer, Jeb wrote in a school essay later that year.
As the two bonded, Jeb began passing the tests required to graduate from Seaman to Mate.
"George made everything a teachable moment," Sonja says. "You know, we pay for Jebby to go to a special school. We pay for therapists. And here comes a high school kid with no training, making minimum wage, and he gets it. He helps my kid."
Back at home, George was working on his own goal: earning his Eagle. He had to conceive, plan and lead a service project.
After that first summer with Jeb, George knew what he wanted to do. Kind of.
He found a little school that serves kids with autism. In October 2011, he telephoned Sydney's Academy, then named Sydney's School for Autism, and asked if they needed anything.
Needs? They had some!
The school, at St. Patrick's Catholic Church, 4518 S Manhattan Ave., offers inclusive preschool and voluntary preK for "typically and non-typically developing" children, and a kindergarten through third-grade Life Skills class.
The tiny campus — just 34 students this year — has gotten accolades and a lot of community support. Families have moved to the area just so their kids can attend, says Renee Daum, administrative director.
But it had only half a playground. The children couldn't use one half because sticky pine sap covered swings in disrepair. The ground had no cushion of mulch. Termites and bees ruled the big sandbox.
George started planning.
His mom, Kathy, a vice president of the Tampa Garden Club, suggested turning the sandbox into a vegetable garden. She connected George with Kitty Wallace, a vice president and the club's community garden coordinator.
"I recommended that they select vegetables that come to harvest quickly so that the kids would stay interested," Kitty says. "Radishes mature quickly but do you know a kid who likes radishes? You want the kids to be inspired by the plant growing but also you want them to enjoy eating what they grow."
George's project included refurbishing the play equipment and laying a carpet of mulch. He had to raise money and find volunteers to help. Planning took more than a year — "It's very easy to procrastinate with something like this," he explains.
With $2,500 in donations, and about two dozen workers, he finally scheduled a marathon work day Feb. 2.
George and his brother Lawson, fellow members of Scout Troop 4, school friends, Renee's 8-year-old daughter, Maegan, and husband, Joe, got busy. They dug out 10 inches of sand from the sandbox, filled it with Jungle Growth soil, and planted green peppers, lettuce, beans and tomatoes. They spread 150 bags of pine bark nuggets. They repaired and stained the swing set.
"They did a great job," Renee says. "The kids are so excited. The first things they run to are the garden and the tire swings. We're already seeing little tiny green peppers!"
Back in New York, Jeb, too, has blossomed. He's 10 now, and a sailor.
Last summer, with George wringing his hands on the dock, Jeb passed the last and hardest test required to become a Mate. He tacked, jibed and smoothly docked a sailboat on his own.
"He wrote me a letter himself telling me how happy he was that I taught him to sail," George says. "It was definitely a growing up moment for me."
And George's Eagle? The jury's still out.
Penny Carnathan can be reached at email@example.com. Find more on local gardening and gardeners on her blog, digginfladirt.com, or join the chat on Facebook at Diggin Florida Dirt. Follow @DigginPenny on Twitter.