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Teen Activity Club merges learning, fun

Flash bulbs popped, proud parents beamed and video cameras purred during the Teen Activity Club's end-of-the-school-year party Friday night in Tampa Heights. And in a fashion show that was no less dazzling for its occasional adolescence awkwardness, 14 Tampa Heights teens strutted and preened to the beat of the music and the delight of their friends.

"It was exciting once you saw the clothes and got used to how they moved to the music," said Sammy Conley, 15, a student at Monroe Junior High School and one of the club's founding members.

For the past six months, as many as two dozen teen-agers have been meeting at the Episcopal House of Prayer in Tampa Heights three afternoons a week. They spend their time together playing, modeling and trying to learn.

"These kids just need a safe place to be and to hang out together," said Connie Caldwell, the director of the outreach ministries for the church.

The club, which started six months ago and is financed by donations and a grant from the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, is growing in popularity. The membership has grown from eight to 25.

"We've come a long way from the first party in December. The kids bought food and a small boom box," Davis said. "But with the generosity of the parish, we've been able to bring them one step further."

Volunteers help club members succeed academically, said George Robinson, a former educator and the driving force behind the academic program.

With a combination of educational techniques and psychological tools, Robinson said he is able to get the students to succeed where others have failed.

"They lack self-confidence and self-esteem," Robinson said. "You need a system where they can feel good about themselves and then move on."

To that end, Robinson held his own version of the televised quiz show Jeopardy on Friday night, pitting three of the club's members against each other in a contest of wits.

Shemeikh Miller, 14, won the title and $50. She was able to correctly name all of the nation's presidents in chronological order.

Winning is what it is all about for inner-city teens who have too few role models, said Davis, who measures success in small increments.

"They start out cursing and then a month or two later they are no longer using profanity, they're being respectful," Davis said. "That may seem like a small step to other people, but that's progress."