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E-mail mentors log time with children

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[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Ceida Valladares, 11, sits in Tampa police Officer Ann Marie DeMesa's patrol car at Sulphur Springs Elementary School in Tampa on Tuesday. This was the first chance Ceida and other students had to meet their e-mail mentors from Tampa Fire Rescue and the Tampa Police Department.

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


TAMPA -- The little boy eyed the tall, muscled man sitting next to him munching on a sandwich of turkey and cheese. Could this be the guy who likes football and old movies and has a dog named Jazz?

"I thought he'd be younger," Christian Vasquez said out of earshot of the second in command at Tampa Fire Rescue. "And I thought he'd be shorter."

Such are the impressions apparently left by a mentor in cyberspace.

Vasquez was one of nearly a dozen Sulphur Springs Elementary School students who met their e-mail mentors -- some of the top guns at Tampa Fire Rescue and the Tampa Police Department -- Tuesday morning in the school's media center.

It was a meeting marked by initial awkwardness, followed by raucous joy as the firefighters showed their proteges the workings of a hulking red fire engine.

"I want to be a firefighter. I want to be a hero for my town and my kids," said Charlie Williams, 10, as he clambered through the middle of the truck.

Daniel Gourdine, 11, came away with a different impression. He said he planned to pass on firefighting. "There are too many things to take care of," he said, waving at the truck's panoply of valves, nozzles and hoses.

The students and mentors were paired in early April and exchanged several e-mails before their meeting Tuesday. The intention of the pairings is to offer the students a window into the world of professions they might otherwise view only from a distance.

"This means so much to these boys and girls to have such wonderful role models," said school principal Debra Arias.

Although e-mail mentoring might not allow for the kind of personal connection cultivated by in-person meetings, it allows busy people to play a role in kids' lives while giving kids the chance to improve their writing skills, organizers said.

For David Keene, the assistant fire chief at Tampa Fire Rescue, the opportunity to exchange messages with Vasquez also meant a chance to give a little something back to the school he attended for seventh grade from 1961 to 1962.

"It's a little strange to be back," he said. But very rewarding, he added.

Over lunch, Keene and Vasquez became better acquainted, talking a great deal about Vasquez's love of wrestling.

Why no questions about firefighting? "I don't want to be a firefighter," Vasquez said. "I want to be an actor like Jackie Chan."

Later, he would reconsider.

As he gazed at a 1,000-foot hose and the shiny gadgetry of the truck, he peppered his mentor with questions: What's this? How does it work?

"You can do this when you grow up," Keene told him as he demonstrated how to hold a lead nozzle.

Vasquez replied that he just might.

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