RUSKIN — Standing next to a display case filled with fossils, Braden Cliff grinned.
The 9-year-old Tarpon Springs boy held a $50 check in his hand. He earned it selling lemonade.
Now, he wanted to give it away.
The lucky recipient? The Paleo Preserve.
A small museum located at Camp Bayou, the Paleo Preserve houses an exhibit of ice age fossils found at the nearby Leisey Shell Pit in Ruskin. The museum's president and curator, Frank Garcia, discovered the more than 1.7 million year old bones in the 1980s. Today, he uses them and more recent discoveries to teach children about Florida's history.
"Kids often say this is the best field trip they've ever been on," Garcia said. "It means an awful lot that this kid doesn't want to see us go under."
Braden wants to be a paleontologist when he grows up. He's read every book and watched every documentary on dinosaurs and reptiles that he could find. Most of his T-shirts feature the creatures.
He visited the nonprofit museum for the first time with his father last year. He brought along some fossils to donate: a deer antler; dolphin and alligator vertebrae; and an alligator scute (a bony scale), all in a display case with his name underneath.
His visit also inspired him.
"Last time I was here, they said they were having a pretty hard time staying open," he said. "I wanted to help keep the museum running."
Garcia said the museum counts on school field trips to stay open. Those visits are down as school districts tighten belts, he said.
Tasked with developing a business for his third-grade gifted class at Sunset Hills Elementary in Tarpon Springs, Braden chose lemonade with the Paleo Preserve in mind.
He named his stand "Lemonade for Paleo Aid."
He spent two days dishing out the fresh-squeezed lemonade for 50 cents a glass.
"They usually just gave me $1," he said.
He recently traveled to the preserve to make the donation before an afternoon soccer game. While there, he swapped fossil finding stories with Garcia.
Braden's knowledge of dinosaurs even impressed the curator.
"He knows more about dinosaurs than I do," Garcia said.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.