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Cleaning effort wipes away age differences

Margie Lovett sat in her wheelchair in the reception area of the Mary McCloud Bethune Hi-Rise, a low-income housing project for elderly and disabled people near Blake High School.

At 70, she never had children and, since her siblings died, rarely has guests in the apartment she has called home for more than a decade.

"Mostly I stay to myself," said Lovett, dressed in a bright purple shirt with matching earrings.

But not Jan. 23. Lovett and about 15 other residents had house guests: students from Blake High School.

Loaded down with mops, brooms and trash bags, the 29 students divided into cleaning teams, pulled on latex gloves and got busy. They had work to do.

The 11th- and 12-graders are members of GEAR-UP, a federally funded program designed to prepare students for success in college or a trade school. Managed by the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of South Florida, the program is offered at Blake High and Memorial Middle School in Tampa.

GEAR-UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program.

Two Blake students, Quinton Abdullah and Faye Austin, both 17, came up with housecleaning as a way to give back to the community. They received a $1,235 grant to clean 30 apartments through the Youth As Resources program funded by the National Conference for Community and Justice.

"We were trying to think of something fresh, something new," Abdullah said. He had visited the Bethune Hi-Rise as a child when his grandfather lived there.

Abdullah and Austin joined GEAR-UP in 1999 when they were seventh-graders at Franklin Middle School, which no longer offers the program. After graduating from Blake, they are considering attending Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

More than 480 Blake students take part in the GEAR-UP program. They meet with USF case managers after school, some Saturdays and over the summer to learn life skills and practice for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and SAT. Motivational speakers give lectures on anger management and how to maintain good credit. Students also go on field trips to colleges and trade schools and have access to tutors.

Through the program, students can apply for scholarships, said project manager Bryce Pride, who works at USF and has his office at Blake. Cleaning the apartments marked the group's first community service project.

"The goal is to do everything we can to get them on a track to go on to higher education," Pride said.

In Lovett's apartment, Austin divvied up chores to five teammates. They swept, mopped, dusted and took out trash.

"You're a lifesaver," Lovett told the group as they leave her with a bag of fruit. "Are you doing this again?"

Possibly, Pride said, if they can get more funding for cleaning supplies, meals and treats for residents.

Students described the experience as rewarding.

"When you help them clean, you get to know them," Abdullah said. "It's good to give back to elderly people. They probably did the same when they were young."

_ Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at 226-3321 or