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Hard work, if you can get it

By WES PLATT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Pilgrims Fellowship members work to replace a roof on a duplex.
So how did you spend your spring break?

Chances are, you didn't spend it like Katie Denissoff.

The 17-year-old traveled to Dade City with 95 other kids from Guilford, Ct., to help the underprivileged on Lock Street.

The teens, members of Connecticut-based Pilgrims Fellowship Youth Ministry, are in town with 14 advisers to clean and spruce up a couple of Farmworker's Self-Help buildings.

Denissoff and her friends have torn out old linoleum, removed broken toilets, washed walls, yanked ceiling tiles, and collected stinky chicken eggs, enduring the dust and the Florida heat. A construction bin outside the Angel Stop Thrift Store is filling quickly with debris.

"It's a good experience," said Denissoff, who wants to be an elementary school teacher some day. "It just makes me feel good."

Well, maybe on the inside.

But even the folks thrown together in the Australian outback for Survivor have some space. That's a luxury item the kids from Connecticut don't have.

They're sleeping on floors in the Self-Help thrift store and the community center. They're sharing one shower. Ninety-six kids. One shower. Think the knocking ever stops on that door?

Still, it is a great opportunity for the teens to learn to work with tools, to build teamwork and tolerance and to develop a sense of volunteerism.

It's not without hazard. Nick Catino, 15, got his finger whacked by a sledgehammer -- he'll be just fine, thank you very much. Another kid got cut. And everyone suffers a little without television and the Internet.

But get this: The Guilford kids didn't just hop buses and ride down to Dade City on a whim. They worked to get here, spending the better part of the past year raising more than $29,000 so they could come to Florida and help people they've never met and may never get to know. The funds cover transportation to and from Florida, construction materials, tools, food and recreation.

That's pretty amazing.

"It's a great lesson for a lot of folks," said Margarita Romo, executive director of Farmworker's Self-Help. "These kids could be out at the beach, partying, but they're here working on roofs. It's a miracle for us."

Meghan Boyd, 15, is here with her older sister, Allison.

"It's fun to help people that are less fortunate than us," Meghan said.

Casey Selwyn, 14, is learning the power of individual effort.

"Now I know you can make a difference as a singular person," she said.

It's not all about work, of course. They're in Florida, within easy reach of Walt Disney World and the gulf beaches -- they've visited both.

But, mostly, it is about work.

When they finish, the kids will leave behind a better Lock Street. They'll leave Farmworker's Self-Help with a revamped thrift store and a cleaned-out apartment for use as a new arts center, where children can learn to make T-shirts, put pictures on coffee cups and make pottery, which Romo hopes to open this summer.

The Connecticut kids are in town through Sunday. This weekend, they'll join with Dade City kids -- the Teen Dream Team among them -- for the Great American Cleanup.

Romo wants to call Lock Street Calle de Milagros -- the Street of Miracles. Maybe miracle isn't the right word. But wonder certainly fits.

- Wes Platt is the Times' central/east Pasco bureau chief. He can be reached at (813) 226-3454. Send letters c/o Pasco Times, 24038 State Road 54, Lutz, FL 33549. Send faxes to (813) 226-3455. Send e-mail to platt@sptimes.com. Discuss this and other issues in our online discussion forums at http://www.sptimes.com/pascoforum.

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