TOWN 'N COUNTRY — Ask teenagers how they'd prefer to spend their weekend mornings, and most would likely pick sleeping over pulling weeds.
But Erin Holiman and pals are out early a lot of weekend mornings, pulling weeds, sweeping, painting or putting on a senior center party. The 17-year-old Middleton High School senior has compiled nearly 500 hours of community service, an impressive eye-catcher on scholarship applications.
"The community loves it, colleges love it and I love it,'' Holiman says. "Everyone wins.''
The energetic teenager is one reason the Town 'N Country Youth Council has been recognized as "best youth program'' four years in the past seven by the Hillsborough County Commission.
"It's a very active and very positive group of youths,'' says Wanda Sloan of the county's Office of Neighborhood Relations, which runs the contest.
Town 'N Country also has a very involved adult advisory board, she adds. "If a program has a lot of support around, it continues to be productive and to grow.''
Each of the 57 kids currently enrolled performs about 80 hours of community service a year, says Rob Gamester, who co-founded the council in 2002. Open to kids from 12 to 17, the youth council operates as a volunteer arm of the county parks and recreation department.
Over the years, the teens have contributed nearly $500,000 worth of volunteer community service hours, Gamester says. They've removed Brazilian pepper trees in freezing weather, planted crape myrtles in the heat of summer. They've cleaned up debris after hurricanes, helped plant and maintain 1,600 trees, shrubs and plants at four county parks and an elementary school, and held more than a dozen cleanups a year. They've helped remodel a nonprofit's building and design a teen room at the Town 'N County library.
Gamester says county officials have always told him that Town 'N Country residents are deeply involved in their community. "I've often wondered, is that what they tell every community? But I keep hearing it.''
It may have something to do with the large population of retired military, he speculates.
Gamester recruits by going to local schools. He addresses gatherings of students and parents, asking "How many want to go to college?'' Hands rise. "How many want someone else to pay for it?'' Hands shoot up.
He points out that Bright Futures scholarships require excellent grades, excellent test scores and 100 hours of volunteer service in the community. "We provide the third leg of that three-legged stool.''
Jacob Shellenberg, 17, a senior at Middleton High School, joined the youth council a year ago, mainly to get community service hours (80 since January). He appreciates the leadership opportunities and enjoys the experiences, particularly getting to know the elderly people he helps in senior centers.
"It really helps you mature,'' he says.
Chau Nguyen joined the group last December and has picked up more than 100 service hours. The newly installed president of the youth council heard about the group from friends at Alonso High School, where she is a senior.
The 17-year-old loves working outside, pruning and planting, and helping at senior centers.
"Interacting with people different from your age, you learn so much from them,'' she says.
The seniors who frequent the Town 'N Country Senior Center love the teens, says center manager Lori Radice. The teens help out at special events, acting as greeters, helping serve lunch and leading activities.
"They're part of our extended family at the senior center now,'' Radice says.
That connection to others is a key reason Erin Holiman's parents suggested she join the council when she turned 12. Her father, Stephen Holiman, spent six years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia and Thailand and encouraged Erin and her brother, Stephen — now a junior at the University of South Florida — to become volunteers.
To the senior Holiman, the physical accomplishment of volunteering isn't as important as what it means — showing people that somebody cares about them.
"It's the person-to-person contact that the true growth and benefit comes from,'' he says.
He has seen a transformation in his daughter since she joined the youth council. She was shy and reserved. "She has since developed into a somewhat forceful, directed and purposeful individual.''
Erin's tenure with the council ends when she graduates from high school. She's a bit wistful.
"I don't know what I'm going to do on weekends now that I'm graduating from the Y.C.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.