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Teen volunteers try to make a dent in violence

(ran SOUTH edition)

The 11-year-old with auburn tresses falling below her shoulders took her mouse ears off after rehearsal and stood quietly near the director, smiling like Mona Lisa.

"So, you're a star. This is it, Julia. The pressure is on," the director teased.

The girl giggled and hugged Julie Hudson, the youth services librarian at Countryside Library, before running out of the room.

No, the girl is not a Mouseketeer. Julia Pappacoda, 11, is an aspiring Try Denting It volunteer at Countryside Library. Though she is too young to join officially, the group let her join them for a performance of one of their "value plays" during a variety show Thursday at the library.

Helping Julia and other younger children feel good about themselves is one of the goals of the teen volunteer group.

"Maybe we can't change the world . . . try denting it," is the group's motto and call to action. Thirteen teens from eighth grade through high school are volunteering under the leadership of Hudson and JoAnne Howard, whom Hudson calls her summer library assistant goddess.

The group is starting its third year, organizing variety shows and story hours for children at the library and volunteering in the community.

The goal is to raise self-esteem at an early age and promote respect and tolerance for all.

"We just try to make people think positively of themselves and treat others positively," said member Megan Fresia of Clearwater, 15.

Julia explained her admiration for the group. "I think it's good because it helps people, and it shows that teens aren't always into violence," she said.

In the weeks after the Columbine, Colo., school massacre in April 1999, teens volunteering at the library started asking Hudson what they could do to help reduce the threat of violence in the schools.

Hudson, Howard and the teens decided they could play a small part by helping children to see their own value and develop tolerance for others. Try Denting It has been pounding away ever since, volunteering in the community and organizing children's events at the Countryside Library.

Last week alone, the group was there to help with something every day at the library. Monday, members met to plan Thursday's variety show. They improvised the value play Melvin the Clever.

Megan Fresia explained the play's message. "We can all be clever; because when someone is clever, they were taught to be clever," she said.

Mice and cats were onstage and waiting for direction from Try Denting It member Megan Goldman of Clearwater, 15.

"Here's your motivation," she said as she flung her arms out wide. "Just kidding."

"Put your teeth back in," Hudson suggested to granny mouse Kelly Kirst, 17, of Clearwater when she was having trouble understanding Kelly's granny accent.

Kristina Skiba, 15, of Clearwater was off to the side, sketching and taking notes. By the time the performers had finished practicing, Kristina had the scenery and props planned out, and she was ready to start making them.

Each member of the group contributes the skills they have. "One of the big messages of our variety show is that each child has something that they do well or they can share," Hudson said.

On Tuesday, Chad Rhode, 13, of Clearwater, alias Melvin the Clever, rode his bike to the library to help out in the youth services area.

On Wednesday, Chad wore his antennas as the group helped with the alien adventures children's story hour. They helped Hudson bring the stories to life and assisted the children in making rocket ships.

After the story hour, the teens worked in the youth services area _ checking to see that books were in the right places and crediting children for days of reading.

Thursday's variety show was the highlight of the week; and despite Hudson's customary prestage jitters, it all came together.

Max Dirscherl, 17, of Clearwater was pleased with the show, which drew an enthusiastic crowd of about a hundred.

"I think that we will not be able to see the full effect of what we're doing for a long time, but I can see from the reaction of the audience that they are understanding our message," he said.

Finally, Friday is the puppet show and another thing _ it's Julia's first day as a library volunteer.

Two more variety shows are scheduled for Thursday and July 26 at the Countryside Library. Call 669-1290 for information.

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