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Top mentor says he's just a pal

(ran PC edition of Pasco Times)

Technically, Robert DeSimone doesn't have any children. But for the past three years, he has spent most Sunday afternoons hanging out with a 17-year-old boy. They shop at the flea market, hike in the woods, watch TV, wash a car or grill hotdogs.

He also has filled some Saturdays during the past six months befriending a 12-year-old boy.

And when the time comes, he plans to will his 22 acres in Homosassa to the mentoring organization he helped mold this year for the benefit of children in Citrus County.

In word and deed, he is every bit the role model a parent is to a child. So his local supervisors aren't at all surprised Tallahassee-based Volunteer Florida has chosen DeSimone as one of 10 individuals statewide to receive an award for their outstanding dedication to their communities.

"He lives and breathes working and mentoring children," said Diane Cary, supervisor of the county's Nature Coast Volunteer Center. "It's his passion. It's his life."

Thursday, DeSimone, 49, will be presented a Sunshine Award on the steps of the old Capitol for his work in mentoring. He was picked from about 50 nominees from across Florida, said Alex Amparo, interim chief executive officer of Volunteer Florida.

The organization created the Sunshine Awards this year to celebrate their 10th anniversary of strengthening communities through volunteerism. Amparo said they wanted to honor 10 people for their work in 10 categories: education, emergency management, environment, family issues, health care, mentoring, public safety, seniors, virtual volunteering and youth.

DeSimone was surprised to find out a couple of weeks ago that he won.

"I felt kind of bad," he said during an interview. "There's plenty of other people out there who are probably more deserving than I am."

It's hard to imagine how. When it became obvious last spring that funding for Citrus County's Big Brothers Big Sisters program was doomed, DeSimone sprang into action to save the program in some fashion.

He had been a Big Brother since 2000. Then, after he sold his mattress business in Homosassa last year, he applied to the AmeriCorps VISTA program to become a full-time volunteer for a year.

A goal of VISTA volunteers is to sustain the program they work with. DeSimone put up a valiant effort throughout the spring. He organized community leaders and residents, searching for a way to keep Big Brothers Big Sisters afloat.

But the program didn't make it. In July, it closed in Citrus, Levy and Marion counties.

DeSimone and former Big Brothers Big Sisters board members were undeterred. They rallied to form a new organization with the same mission: one-on-one mentoring for children in Citrus. The Sertoma Mentoring Village of Citrus County was officially chartered Aug. 29, just two months after Big Brothers Big Sisters folded.

"I knew that there was a need here for mentoring . . . and I knew people here would support it," he said.

The Sertoma Mentoring Village's new program director started just last week, and organizers already have been holding regular yard sales to raise money. By the end of November, they hope to have their first 10 mentor-child matches made, DeSimone said.

It's been a long process, as they have to do federal background screenings, applications and interviews with every adult interested in becoming a mentor. About 15 to 20 matches made through Big Brothers Big Sisters are on a waiting list to participate in the new program.

"We've had to overcome a lot of things," DeSimone said. "But it's going to be worth it in the long run. I know there's going to be hundreds of kids who get mentors out of our work."

Already, two boys benefit from the time DeSimone invests in relationships with them. He's modest when asked to describe his dedication to these kids, noting they do "just simple things" together.

He's also careful not to describe himself as a father figure, but as a buddy.

"We're there to be a friend and not some provider of special things," he said. "I like to think of being a positive, adult male role model. Somebody who's got stability in their life, that he can look at as a regular visitor and somebody he can call if he's got any problems."

Someday, many more children will reap the fruits of DeSimone's commitment to them. The Sertoma Mentoring Village currently uses Robert and Mary Ann DeSimone's property for its yard sales and some arts and crafts classes.

But his long-term vision for the warehouse and shop on his property involves creating an actual mentoring village where kids and their mentors could gather for arts and crafts, mechanics, woodworking and sewing.

Then, they would open their own little shop to sell the goods they had made. It would be a way to learn life skills, DeSimone said.

"They have big plans," said Cary, who supervises the VISTA volunteers in Citrus and also nominated DeSimone for the award.

Cary, Citrus County Community Services Director Brad Thorpe and Community Support Services Director Cathy Pearson will drive to Tallahassee Thursday to applaud DeSimone when he receives his award. A daylong anniversary celebration is planned, ending with a reception where Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings will recognize the Sunshine Award winners.

Pearson said she is honored to know DeSimone and to support his endeavors.

"His persistence and his heart for the kids is just unbelievable," she said.

DeSimone's stint as a VISTA volunteer ends Jan. 31. After that, he'll remain on the board for Sertoma Mentoring Village and continue to help the program flourish, he said. The goal, he said, is to convince everyone in the community to take ownership of the program.

He's also looking forward to finalizing the business side of structuring the new organization so that he can redirect his energies to the reason he got into volunteering: the kids.

"I know that if you're going to change anything, you have to start with the kids," he said. "Good people have to have good influences early in their life."

_ Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303 or cjenkinssptimes.com.

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