M att Nuzzo and Jake Ponce de Leon have known for years that they would be leaving their mark on Pasco County. Just take a drive down Little Road, Mitchell Boulevard or around the campuses of Mitchell High and Seven Springs Middle School. You'll see bright yellow "Wildlife" and "Sandhill Crossing" signs that were installed after the two young men led a service learning project in Cindy Tehan's Lead the Pack class at Seven Springs Middle.
Now, as the 18-year-old seniors prepare to graduate, their efforts might leave a mark on the minds of others. The duo are featured in a textbook called Civics in Practice Integrated: Civics, Economics, and Geography for Florida (Holt McDougal) that will be distributed next school year to Pasco County middle schoolers.
Nuzzo and Ponce de Leon and their eighth-grade smiling mugs are featured on page 343 in a lesson on youth civic involvement called "Florida Students Take Citizen Action — Protecting Sandhill Cranes."
The cautionary signs were erected in 2008 after Nuzzo and Ponce de Leon lobbied state Sen. Mike Fasano, who met with them and other students about their concerns for the cranes that were being killed by cars as they sauntered along the roads. He helped them move to the next step, contacting county commissioners who were in charge of the county roads where the "Wildlife Area" signs were eventually placed. Seven Springs Middle administration ended up pitching in, installing a few "Sandhill Crane Crossing" signs on school grounds to alert parents dropping off their children.
"It's scary — they're not afraid at all," Nuzzo said of the cranes that, because of their gray color, blend in with the pavement. Even with the threat of danger, the cranes won't stray from their young offspring. "The ones we have on campus are domesticated. We have about 1,100 kids here and we'll be changing classes and they'll be just walking right next to you."
"They are just such awesome, awesome kids," said Tehan. "They had the persistence and the desire to see something happen and the work ethic to go through with it."
Nuzzo, who works part time bagging groceries at Publix, took part in National Honor Society, Future Business Leaders of America, swim team and the Interact Club. He also spent some time campaigning door to door for Fasano and state Rep. Richard Corcoran.
"It started out as a way to give back," Nuzzo said. "I couldn't believe that a state senator was so accessible. I called him about the cranes and he called us right back. He's the go-to guy for his constituents. I consider him a good friend and mentor."
"Matt is a good friend of ours," said Fasano, who will attend the Mitchell High commencement. "I think he sets an example for so many other young people. He and other students I've met — especially through Ms. Tehan and her class — are working to get other young people involved … you would like to see that in every part of the county; young people getting government's attention and your local officials' attention that there is a problem out there."
As for Ponce de Leon, well, he's Mitchell's senior class president and will deliver a speech at Friday's commencement.
"I have to admit, I'm a little nervous about that," he said.
Ponce de Leon also was a member of Teen Court, the Teen Leader Club at the James Gills YMCA, and was recently named "Mr. Mitchell."
It's a pretty good story, but definitely not the end for the two friends who will soon part ways to attend rival schools.
Ponce de Leon will attend Florida State University in Tallahassee with plans to major in business and minor in entrepreneurship. "After that, maybe I'll go to law school, maybe go into politics, whatever. I want to go as far up the ladder as I can."
Nuzzo will be off to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he plans to major in general and international business.
The sandhill crane project was a "gateway," Nuzzo said. "I'm confident that I wouldn't have been as involved in my community as I have. The big message there was it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, it just matters what your drives are and what you do with that. For awhile I've been focused on the small community. Now I'm interested in broadening that perspective."