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Teenagers with zeal to serve give back

A neighbor's story of government work and Iraq experiences moves a group in Crystal Beach to spend a day fixing up her home.

Published April 19, 2004

CRYSTAL BEACH - The dozen or so teens were on a mission Sunday, and it was not spending the day at the beach.

It was a day spent working in the sun, their way of saying "Thank you" to a neighbor, a friend and an inspiration.

Their neighbor, Paula Wikle, a third-generation resident of Crystal Beach, was wounded in Iraq in October. The injury left her with diminished strength and mobility in her right arm.

After Wikle bought a house in the community about a month ago, the teens decided to donate their time to rake leaves, plant trees and shrubs, and remove an old shed - things the 34-year-old could no longer do.

Brenton Reppy, 15, came up with the idea.

"I knew Ms. Wikle had put her life on the line for us and thought it would be good for us to give something back," he said.

Not long ago, Wikle had visited the Crystal Beach Youth Center and talked to the group Crystal Beach TIDE, which stands for Teens in Direct Empowerment. She discussed her job with the State Department and shared her experience in Baghdad.

The teens found her message inspiring.

"Everyone wanted to help her out," said Rachel Bradley, 17, president of TIDE. "She's a great person with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. She seems so happy, considering all that has happened to her."

On Sunday morning, the group arrived at Wikle's home in golf carts, on bikes or by foot. Some brought their parents and neighbors. They brandished rakes, hoes and shovels. They played rap music as they worked in the sun. At one point, Wikle came out and squirted them with her Spiderman squirt gun.

"I saw you slacking!" she joked.

The plants and trees - yellow hibiscus, confederate jasmine, plumbago and palms - were either donated or sold to the group at discount by local businesses.

Katie Santana and Rachel Tullius, both 12, collected more than $500 from the neighborhood to help cover the costs.

"The neighbors were very generous," Katie said.

Rachel's father, Jim Tullius, toiled for more than an hour trying to remove a stump with a shovel and a bow saw. He said it was important to set a good example.

"I want to make sure my kids know that this is the right thing to do - to give back," he said. "We get a lot of "Me, me, me' nowadays, and this takes the focus off them and puts it on others."

After planting a white bird of paradise, Alex Paino, 15, put his arm around Wikle and told her how much he cared.

"I love you, Paula," he said.

Sue Conlon, whose husband owns the Plant Connection, which donated the mulch, helped, too, Sunday.

"I'm proud of the teens and how they helped identify this need," she said.

Wikle, who endured 10 surgeries in four hospitals for her injury, still has physical therapy three times a week. Her doctors have restricted how much she can lift with an injured arm.

"I'm a work in progress," she said. She doesn't expect to gain much more use of her arm in the future.

"This is as good as it gets but about 150 times better than they thought it would be," she said. At one point, doctors feared they would have to amputate.

Wikle, a State Department employee, was in Iraq on Oct. 26 when anti-American guerrillas fired nearly two dozen rockets at the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad.

She had volunteered to fill in for two months as an office manager. The attack wounded 15 and killed Army Lt. Col. Charles H. Buehring, 40. Immediately after the attack and in the weeks that followed, doctors in the Middle East, Germany, Washington, D.C., and Tampa operated to repair her injured arm.

Throughout her recovery, she has amazed family, friends, doctors and nurses with her positive outlook and upbeat attitude.

On Sunday, it was Wikle's turn to be amazed.

As she watched the group of about 20 working on her yard, she said, "This gives new meaning to the phrase: "It takes a village.'

"I am overwhelmed with appreciation," she said. "This really reflects the Crystal Beach community and how much generosity of spirit there is here. When I was young, we took care of the older people, and now others are helping me. It just has a magical touch to it."

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