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Relentless teenager honored for work

By AMY ABBOTT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


TAMPA -- Jennifer Sasso's restlessness hints that she has a lot on her mind. The 16-year-old always seems to be thinking of the next project she wants to tackle. Right now, she is thinking of the dress rehearsal coming up for Berkeley Preparatory's spring play. She's the lead.

Today a different spotlight will fall on her.

Sasso will be in Washington, D.C., with five other teenage girls from around the nation being honored by Seventeen magazine for their volunteer work with needy and at-risk children.

The fourth annual Seventeen/Cover Girl Volunteerism Awards will be presented by WNBA All-Star player Nikki McCray and teenage singing stars Jessica Simpson and Brandy. First lady Laura Bush will be the keynote speaker.

Sasso is being honored for Creative Kids, a non-profit organization she founded in September 1998 when she was 13.

She uses art to help children dealing with the stress of emotional and physical trauma.

Every month, Sasso and 150 volunteers assemble more than 250 bags filled with crayons and colored paper to be distributed to children in the Tampa Bay area. Sometimes the bags have different themes like Under the Sea, with tiny shells or starfish trinkets thrown in.

Art gives the children a chance to vent about their situation or take their minds off what they are going through, Sasso said.

"It feels good to work with children," Sasso said. "They get excited over little things like when I bring in a big feather."

The organization visits two children's hospitals, a children's cancer center and an orphanage. Sasso also works with children at the Spring, a battered spouse shelter, which is where she found her inspiration for Creative Kids.

"My grandmother was a volunteer at the Spring when she showed me a picture by one of the kids there," Sasso said. The picture was of a father's fist striking out at a mother yelling "Stop!" She knew then that she wanted to work with children.

After that, Sasso volunteered more than 40 hours at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church during summer vacation. She donated her Christmas money to a toy drive when she heard the group organizing it wasn't going to meet its goals. And she began $5-a-day summer workshops out of her house for neighborhood kids.

When the expenses became too much, Sasso went looking for funding. She sent out more than 200 letters to companies in 17 states. Wal-Mart gave her in-store credit for supplies. Eckerd Drug Stores and Albertson's have donated supplies and grants. In all, Creative Kids has received more than $8,000 in cash, store credit and supplies.

Sasso's work has reached more than 3,500 children.

Sasso said she will be excited to be in Washington today, "but the people I really want to talk with are the other girls to see what they're doing."

What's next?

"I'll keep pursuing ways to improve Creative Kids," Sasso said. "But I need to find a freshman to keep it going."

She graduates next year and doesn't want to leave her kids without someone to help them.

"I know people have other responsibilities and it's hard to commit so much time to this," Sasso said. "But I will keep in contact. I can't leave it all at once."

- Amy Abbott can be reached at (813) 226-3374 or abbott@sptimes.com.

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