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PROGRAM HELPS YOUTHS MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THEIR COMMUNITY

Karina Rivera stands in front of a pink stucco house, squinting at a tiny screen.

She plants a pointer firmly on an electronic map.

"I found it!" she yells, clicking on an aerial photograph of the property.

The 13-year-old West Tampa resident is one of 15 participants in a fledgling summer program.

Together, they chart the neighborhood, one house at a time. The data they collect will be used by county officials to develop a community plan for the Palm River area - pinpointing problems and figuring out how to fix them.

With faint hip-hop beats pumping in the background, they cruise down streets in a large white van.

Past chain-link fences.

Past signs that say "Danger" and "Keep Out."

Past broken windows and overgrown lawns.

But they don't just watch. They find houses on maps, take notes and talk about what they see.

"They're not passers-by," said Greater Palm River POINT executive director Liz Gutierrez. "They actually have a voice."

The nonprofit organization started the summer PR1 Youth Corps program last year, with help from a $20,000 grant from Bank of America.

And organizers are trying to find funding to continue the successful program year-round.

The program's participants receive $25 each week for their work. On Fridays, they sell snow cones to raise more money for a group trip.

Most of them live in the area. All of them are between 12 and 15 years old - a critical age, according to program organizers.

"You could kind of go either way at that point," neighborhood planning director Natalie Clamp said. "And around here, there's nothing for them to do."

As the van zigzags down neighborhood streets, Bode'sha Speed takes notes.

"Really really nice house," the 12-year-old Progress Village Middle School student scribbles next to one address. A nearby house receives a less stellar review: "Make over. Cut grass."

The van lumbers over speed bumps at 10 miles per hour. But its passengers' observations quicken with each turn:

This house needs some grass.

Oooh - they've got a nice hedge.

Whoa! They oughtta be ashamed.

Look at that girl - she thinks she's all that.

Some boy lives there. He used to like my cousin.

Back in the classroom, Rivera retraces the van's route with a pointer on her PDA screen.

She marks each abandoned, destroyed or "For Sale" address her group noticed along the way.

A consultant will help analyze the data collected by the program's participants. And county planners will use it to help develop a community plan for Palm River.

Recommendations from last year's group included patching up potholes on local roads, installing surveillance cameras near trash bins and improving parks to provide safe hangouts.

Next week, participants will graduate from the summer program and present their findings, including trash sites, neighborhood hangouts and abandoned homes.

They are familiar sights for Velvet Nealy, who grew up in Palm River. But the 14-year-old Bloomingdale High School freshman said now he sees them differently.

"I think, 'Wow, I can't believe this is happening in my neighborhood,' " he said. "And I wish I could fix it."

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2454.

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