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Students looking for Bright Futures credit follow nontraditional volunteer paths

Alexandria Harrington plays for residents at Hawthorne Village assisted living facility.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Alexandria Harrington plays for residents at Hawthorne Village assisted living facility.

BRANDON — Alexandria Harrington set her violin between her cheek and her shoulder, raised her bow and began to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Her audience, residents at Hawthorne Village, an assisted living facility in Brandon, seemed to soak up every note. Smiles began to spread across the room. Troubles seemed to melt like lemon drops.

And when the song ended, the residents showered the young musician with robust applause.

"It was well worth my time," Dorothy Olfson, 86, said after Harrington's performance. "Teenagers need to be appreciated more. It's important to encourage the young people. They work so hard to please us."

Visits from young musicians like Harrington reach residents on a deeper level, said Naomi Ausburn, an assisted living manager at the community.

"As we grow older we forget things," Ausburn said. "Music brings back things to us. It triggers something in the mind that gives you a happy, peaceful feeling."

Harrington believes her music is a gift that crosses generations and is also a type of medicine for the soul.

But this is more than feel-good work. After she puts away her instrument, Harrington takes care to note how long she has spent playing for the seniors. As a freshman at Blake High School, she will earn service hours for volunteering. The hours help students garner scholarships and raise college admission chances.

Linda Santos, a career and guidance resource specialist with Hillsborough County Schools, says students who want to qualify for 100 percent tuition coverage through the Bright Futures Program are required to perform 75 hours of service work.

The activities students choose must support a social cause, which could encompass issues such as elder needs, domestic abuse, poverty, health and the environment, Santos said.

The district requires students to submit their cause or issue and perform services through a variety of ways. Popular volunteer sites include hospitals, public libraries and homeless shelters. But some students, such as Harrington, deviate from the norm and serve in nontraditional ways.

In Thonotosassa, Armwood High School student Jessica Eaton helps neglected or abused children. She volunteers at Everyday Blessings, a private nonprofit child welfare agency.

Everyday Blessings offers a temporary home for children who eventually return to their families or are adopted, said the executive director Mark Van Meter. The agency screens volunteers with fingerprint and background checks. Volunteers must also complete an orientation and training program.

At Everyday Blessings, Eaton says she tries to make the children laugh. She also holds victims of abandonment and abuse in her arms. While caregivers go about their tasks of doing laundry and other housekeeping chores for the children, she entertains her eager audience, drawing pictures for them, making them feel important.

"You get in touch with your inner child," said Eaton, 15.

Laeticia McClenton, a live-in caregiver and residential coordinator at the center, relies on Eaton's ability to keep order among the children while she completes her household work.

"It was a joy for her to pick this place where kids need such individual attention," McClenton said. "She's very bubbly and, with her, they don't stray away because she reads them stories and plays with them."

Eaton, like the other student volunteers, does not get paid for her work. But she said the children pay her loads in affection.

"Every Monday when I get there, I get back-breaking hugs," Eaton said. "It's not official if it's not back-breaking."

For Brian Keller, wildlife is the draw. Keller fell in love with wild animals by watching them on television alongside his father. Now 16, Keller volunteers at the Wildlife Rescue Ministries in Brandon. The Bloomingdale High student takes care of wounded or abandoned wild animals on Saturday mornings.

"I love them, and I can't get enough of them," Keller said.

At the wildlife shelter, Keller feeds hawks, owls and most recently five baby foxes that were found by a local woman.

His job is to make sure the animals have food and water. During his first days as a volunteer, Keller remembers being afraid to approach the animals when he heard them growl. Gradually his gentleness and eagerness to learn earned the trust of the animals at feeding time.

John Le Bron, the center's wildlife coordinator and veterinary technician, praised Keller's dependability and ease with the animals.

Above all, Keller says he has learned a great deal about wildlife.

"They were here first," Keller said of the animals. "I think this is our way of making it back up to them by nursing them back to health and putting them back in their environment."

Belinda Kramer can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Students looking for Bright Futures credit follow nontraditional volunteer paths 08/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 6, 2009 5:30am]

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