NEW PORT RICHEY
Hunter Rains hops out of his granny's car, drops his backpack inside the house and he's off.
Keys jangling on his hip, a note pad and pencil jammed in his rear jeans pocket, the 7-year-old first-grader has daily rounds to make.
"Ruth!" Hunter shouts as he raps on the front door at his first stop, around the corner from his home. "I'm here, Ruth!"
Ruth Heffron, 84, and her clutter of cats greet the boy, affectionately known as the mayor of Orange Grove Avenue, with a welcome, and begonias.
"This is what Hunter does best," Heffron says as he digs holes in a planter box. "He comes and checks on me, helps me feed my cats. . . . He's my little helper."
About 10 minutes later, the flowers are potted, the excess dirt brushed aside. Heffron thanks Hunter, who heads across the street to visit 73-year-old Charlie Small and his golden retriever, Mischief.
Small has no odd jobs today — Hunter gathered all the loose leaves and branches from the yard a day earlier. Instead, they chat briefly before the boy moves on.
"He's the mayor of the block," says Tom O'Grady, 63, Hunter's next-door neighbor and mail carrier, who's next on the route. "You turn around and he's there."
"It's like I'm here, then I'm gone," he says.
He spends about seven minutes detangling a Tampa Bay Lightning banner that hangs from O'Grady's front yard palm tree. O'Grady jokes that, the way the Lightning are playing, the flag won't be up much longer. Hunter focuses on getting the job done regardless, poking away with a telescoping golf ball retrieval scoop.
Once finished, as he says, he's gone.
Amanda Dickerson, Hunter's mom, supports her son's neighborhood forays but admits they weren't her idea. He set out on his own to meet everyone and help them with chores.
"He'd always help his granny do the yard work," Dickerson says. "Then he just started going to the neighbors. He'd just start conversations with them."
Before long, he had a routine.
"He thrives off it," his mom says. "I know when I was a kid, I wanted to go out and play. He wants to help everyone."
That desire seems to run in the family, "granny" Judi Mangas says. After all, she notes, folks used to refer to her husband as the mayor of Orange Grove Avenue, and later an uncle, too.
"It's just like through osmosis he inherited it," Mangas says of Hunter. "We didn't even realize what he was doing until Ruth came by one day with some cookies."
She asked what the sweets were for, and learned that Hunter — about 5 at the time — had helped locate one of Heffron's cats. She wanted to show her appreciation.
He has been at it ever since.
Liz Simitz, who lives across from O'Grady, answers the door with a towel on her head when Hunter comes calling. She's getting ready for her nursing shift and has little time to spend.
Even so, she takes a few minutes to talk with the boy, who first visited on the day she and husband, Lou, moved in. Hunter dropped in to investigate their moving truck — he was the first neighbor to stop by — and wound up helping the family unpack.
Now, Simitz says, "He comes by every day. He's our little mayor."
Hunter climbs on his bicycle and pedals over to the Craig house. Blake Craig, 13, emerges to shoot the breeze. With no work to do there, Hunter eyes the swing hanging from an oak. Blake nods his okay.
"The best part is playing," Hunter says with a grin. "I do work. Then I play."
He scales an 8-foot ladder, swing in hand, then positions himself on the seat and lets fly. He swoops back and forth, seemingly done with his rounds.
But then he spots a blue Geo Tracker zipping up the street. "Gary!" he shouts. "There's Gary!"
Hunter jumps off the swing and darts across Orange Grove Avenue, getting to his neighbor before he can open the car door.
Gary Marchant jokes around with the youngster, who he says is in charge of the block. They talk about a model Spider-Man that sits in Marchant's yard and also about the antique cars that Marchant rebuilds with Hunter's occasional assistance.
"He's very inquisitive. He's always asking questions," says Marchant, 61, who has lived in the community just off the Cotee River for 14 years. He also calls Hunter "mayor."
Hunter likes the title. He says he wouldn't mind being mayor someday. His school, Richey Elementary, even recognized him for its Random Acts of Kindness Week because of his activities.
Really, though, he says, "I do want to be a cop when I grow up, because it's fun."
His visits finally complete, Hunter races back to Blake's for more swinging. Then he returns home, where O'Grady has left him a chocolate ice cream sandwich that he happily inhales.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek on Twitter. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.