It was just a couple of days before the winter break and 7-year-old Blake Devisfruto was fretting about the holiday wreath he was making out of green jigsaw puzzle pieces in his second-grade classroom at Watergrass Elementary.
"It's not perfect," he told Shelby Thompson as she paused from her task of dotting glitter berries and bows on the wreath of another.
"Don't worry about that," Shelby offered with a cheery voice and a smile that seemed to lighten Blake's mood. "Life isn't perfect. So why should wreaths be?"
At 16, Shelby seems to have the teacher gig down. Sure, there's another year of school to finish for the Wesley Chapel High junior. College after that. But one day she plans on making her livelihood surrounded by students in an elementary classroom.
No doubt she'll get there, fueled by experience gained from all those hours volunteering in classrooms at Watergrass Elementary School and as a teaching assistant at Weightman Middle and Wesley Chapel High.
"She's a natural. She's done better than some of my interns," said second-grade teacher Hillary Wankelman, one of three Watergrass teachers Shelby helps on a weekly basis. "She's patient, organized and quick on her feet when it comes to problem solving."
"She comes any time you ask for special projects," said fifth-grade teacher Susan Fischer. "She'll help anybody. She's quite a kid."
Add to that the service hours Shelby has racked up for organizations such as the American Cancer Society, Relay for Life, Toys for Tots, Special Olympics, duties she has taken on as a member of the National Honor Society and as president of the school's Interact Club, and it's easy to see why Shelby was named the 2010-11 District School Board of Pasco County Youth Volunteer of the Year.
Shelby, who was nominated for the honor by Fischer, will be recognized at a February School Board meeting and entered in a statewide competition sponsored by the Florida Department of Education.
"I've always been volunteering," said Shelby, noting the gift of giving time started when she was very young, helping out her mom, Sandy Thompson, who was then a regular volunteer at Sand Pine Elementary School. "I'd help her out with whatever kind of things she was doing: PTA stuff, collecting food for Metropolitan Ministries, shopping together for a family we were sponsoring for Christmas."
Since then, Shelby has collected donations for UNICEF, participated in the Hike for Hospice, giftwrapped to raise funds for Relay for Life, visited patients at the Hope Lodge at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.
She has volunteered with exceptional students at Watergrass and was instrumental in getting a trampoline donated to the school to enhance sensory input for students with autism. Some of her favorite times, she said, have been spent working with young athletes at Special Olympic events.
"I just love being there," she said. "There are all these kids with disabilities just having fun. It doesn't matter what award they win, they're just happy — they just have a great time."
With little time to spare, Shelby also maintained a 4.21 grade point average, something she hopes will get her into her dream school, Florida Gulf Coast University, and also inspire younger students about the importance of being a good student.
No doubt she has their ear and their admiration.
"She's really nice," said second-grader Zaynub Siddiqui, 8. "She helps a lot of people. If I need help with some work, she would help me."
"She's like a rock star," said Aniya Timmons, 7. "She helps us a lot and she comes every Thursday."
"We really, really like her," said Devoni Rodriguez, 7. "And we miss her when she's gone."