LAND O'LAKES — Matt Mooney couldn't believe it when they called his name.
"There was actually this other kid who made this biodiesel project. I thought his thing was pretty intricate, so I didn't really know," said Matt, a 16-year-old junior in Land O'Lakes High School's International Baccalaureate program.
But when the student winner of the Governor's Serve to Preserve: Green School Award was announced late Wednesday, Matt had taken the first-ever honor.
"It was pretty amazing," said Matt, who got a plaque and a $1,500 check.
Matt won for his three-year-old effort to collect enough recycled cans to pay for building a home for Habitat for Humanity. Last month, he surpassed the 1 million can mark, putting him about one-quarter to one-third of the way to his goal (depending on the value of aluminum).
"We're making progress," said Matt's dad, Wayne Mooney. "It's nice that these kinds of efforts can be appreciated, not only from a Habitat for Humanity perspective but also from the environmental point of view."
On Earth Day in April, Gov. Charlie Crist announced the new awards, saying the future of Florida depends on two things: a clean environment and successful children.
"Protecting the environment, increasing student learning, saving our schools money by improving energy efficiencies — all at the same time — is a smart decision from every direction," Crist said.
Matt started his project when he was 13, too young to work on a Habitat construction crew but eager to help. Habitat for Humanity had just started its recycling initiative, and he jumped into it headfirst, collecting cans from construction sites near his Dade City home.
As he gathered cans, he also gained attention from local media. As a result, his support network grew to include schools, golf courses, churches and other organizations.
"He and his family have almost single-handedly helped to jump-start our effort," said Christiana Swanson, recycling coordinator for East Pasco Habitat for Humanity. "They really helped it grow from small-scale to what it is now."
The group collects 800 pounds of cans monthly, she said, with 29 donation sites in Dade City, San Antonio and Zephyrhills.
"What they've done to help us is amazing," Swanson said.
Matt — who plans to give half of his award money to Habitat's recycling fund and put the other half toward college — said he just was looking for a way to help.
"It's kind of nasty sometimes, but it's worth it," he said. "My goal when we started was to build a house. I had no idea how much effort it would require. I'm going to try to get it done by the time I graduate."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.