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Simple acts of kindness and a hidden jewel

By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2002

All Gina Shannon wanted was to find a unique way for her son to embrace the spirit of giving. But in the process, 6-year-old Zealand has become something of a celebrity.

All Gina Shannon wanted was to find a unique way for her son to embrace the spirit of giving. But in the process, 6-year-old Zealand has become something of a celebrity.

It started last year when the Shannons were inspired by the story of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who asked their wedding guests to donate to a charity rather than give gifts. Zealand did the same for his birthday party and ended up raising $141 for the American Heart Association and a leukemia foundation.

This year, he raised $300 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Museum of Science and Industry. MOSI contacted Douglas' publicist, thinking the actor would want to know how his actions affected Zealand.

Douglas responded with a letter telling Zealand: "We are proud of you for working towards making this a better world for those who are in need." Douglas also agreed to match Zealand's donation.

The story has resulted in Zealand being featured on local television newscasts, and many have related his generosity to Pay It Forward, the book and movie about a boy who hopes to change the world with random acts of kindness.

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Just a reminder: It's not too late to sign up for Saturday's African-American Men's Health Forum, which will be held at the Hillsborough Community College Dale Mabry campus. You can call 259-6006 or log on to www.florida-cancer.org.

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One of Tampa's hidden jewels is just a short ride from downtown on the east side of the Hillsborough River. All you have to do to get there is -- well, I'm not sure I'm going to tell you how to reach the Franciscan Center, because its anonymity is a big part of its charm.

Truth be told, there are a good number of Tampa folks who know about the center, which has served as a spiritual retreat and group meeting place on Perry Street for 22 years. Pet owners have flocked there annually to have their animals blessed, but the Franciscan Center is more than a mecca for Rex and Whiskers.

When I visited on Friday, serenity whispered through the leafy branches on the meticulous grounds. From the conference room, you could see the river quietly flowing toward the bustle of downtown, beautifully reflecting the image of a man walking on the other side.

Only lunchtime hunger stopped me from abandoning the duties of the day and spending the afternoon soaking in solitude.

The center has been used by an array of people: professors looking to include religion in a forum, Buddhists seeking a place to meditate, alcoholics on the road to recovery, Pinellas County teachers staying overnight to learn about a new multicultural program.

The center includes a dining room, library, conference area, chapel and 35 bedrooms with baths (but no telephones or cable television). One of the rooms is made up like a cave because St. Francis often retreated into the caves of Assisi.

Sister Cathy Cahill, the director, said that in the 13 years she has been at the center, the grounds have become more attractive, thanks to volunteers, and the center has accommodated more people.

"The heart hasn't changed, but the number of people with different programs has increased," Sister Cahill said.

Today at 4 p.m., Eleanor Solomon brings her Young Motivational Singers of Tampa Bay to the Franciscan Center for a special concert: Heritage Of Black Music from Early Slave Songs to Contemporary Gospel. The concert is the perfect impetus to let this hidden jewel shine on you.

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Funniest picture I've seen this week: On the back of a Tampa/Hillsborough County cultural calendar is Florida Orchestra resident conductor Thomas Wilkins in a tie, tails and a pair of red Bermuda shorts standing in the surf. It's a tourism ad from the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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Gina Shannon doesn't want her son receiving too much attention for his simple act of kindness, and she insists this isn't a campaign to get every child to abandon birthday gifts for charity.

I explained, however, that people enjoy reading about kids doing good things. Whether it's Zealand being charitable or Greco Middle School's Javarious Jones and Oscar Carter turning in a lost bag of $4,000, youthful deeds give us hope for the future.

And it's better than reading about 50 to 70 teens running amok at the state fair.

-- Ernest Hooper can be reached at 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com.

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