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Running toward life's possibilities

Another in a series profiling Tampa Bay area residents at work whose talents and dedication reflect the spirit of Olympic athletes.

There is no hint of weariness in Chontell Perry's face as she lists her mighty goals and many responsibilities, not the least of which is the stream of children flowing around her to reach the lunch line.

Perry, a recreation aide at Campbell Park Neighborhood Center, works with two dozen 7- and 8-year-olds. There are more than 100 children in all at the summer play camp, each now intent on fetching a foam tray with cold-cut sandwich, banana and milk.

For the children, Perry is many things. She is a coach, entertainment director, lawmaker, traffic director, preacher, pal. She juggles more roles: college student, niece, athlete, soon-to-be healer.

"I'm sure of myself. As long as I keep my head straight, I know I can do it," Perry says of her crowded agenda. "I just keep going day to day."

The work with children began four summers ago through the city's Summer Youth Intern Program. When classes at St. Petersburg Junior College resume this fall, Perry will continue studies toward a career in sports medicine or physical therapy, bookending school with early-morning and afternoon child-care duties at Campbell Park.

A track star at Dixie Hollins High School and former SPJC basketball player, the 22-year-old Perry says she is watching much of the Summer Olympics coverage.

"It makes me feel great. It tells me I can do it, too.

"Not just sports, but in my job and at school _ that I can succeed."

Perry's life is a heptathlon, of sorts. If world-class athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee can get past injuries and her 34 years of age to excel in seven different track-and-field events, Perry says she surely can hurdle tough chemistry courses ("no lower than a C"), stay one jump ahead of the kids and outrun the rare moments when it all becomes too much.

But "I want to help people and I want to be involved with kids. They have energy. They love to play. I do, too," she says.

Perry and her charges have created kaleidoscopes out of tissue-paper rolls. When they go into the swimming pool, she watchfully paces the deck. For the inevitable spats, she's the referee.

She will not, she says, put up with attitude.

"I'll deal with that problem then and there. I put those kids in time out until they come up with a solution."

The answer for the long-term, she reminds them frequently, is education.

In the shadow of the the ThunderDome, and in a scrap of shade stolen from the merciless July sun, the kids and Perry enjoy a spirited game of kickball. After camp, Perry will take a few laps around the park.

It seems she's always running. But never from; always to.

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