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    Model citizen, dutiful worker -- at 10

    When Marissa Dutra had an hour to spare, she took a cue from Mom and got to work helping a classroom.

    By DONNA WINCHESTER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


    PINELLAS PARK -- Ten-year-old Marissa Dutra was bored, so she got busy.

    She is starting her second year as assistant to a kindergarten teacher, and is one of the youngest of 22,000 volunteers in Pinellas County schools' community involvement volunteer program.

    Her mother, Diane, is a teacher's aide at Marissa's school, Pinellas Central Elementary, and has to arrive by 7:15 a.m., more than an hour before Marissa needs to be there. Marissa found herself with time to fill and no classmates to share it with. Her mother suggested that she help some teachers. She decided to help her mother, who is an aide in Carolyn Zella's class.

    By the time the Orange Bears arrive at the kindergarten classroom, Marissa has been busy for more than an hour.

    She has sharpened their pencils, cleaned out their paint trays and laid a fresh sheet of drawing paper at each of their places. At 8:30 a.m., she's standing at the door, ready to greet them and to help them attach their orange bear-shaped name tags.

    As the children pile into the classroom, Marissa helps them with their book bags and collects their lunch money. She makes sure that each one signs in on a large pad of paper near the door. She holds the hands of those unable to write their names on their own, helping them to form the letters.

    Marissa has "always been a little helper" around the house, her mother says. She helps with her brother, Joseph, who is in first grade, and with her sister, Marah, 3. She does the dishes and cleans her room.

    Dutra and kindergarten teacher Zella agree that having Marissa in the classroom before school starts has been a big help. "She's done everything I've asked her to," Zella said. "I've tried to let her be very independent. She makes suggestions for the classroom and a lot of them are very good."

    One was to fill a glass jar with plastic rings. Each morning as the children sign in for the day, they guess how many rings are in the jar. Zella said it's fun for the children, but it's also a way for them to learn to count.

    In addition to helping the kindergarten class, Marissa helps Sheryl Miller, Pinellas Central's community involvement assistant. Miller, who was a volunteer for seven years at the school herself, has worked with the volunteer program at Pinellas Central for three years. She said that by the time she approached Marissa about officially becoming part of the community involvement program, Marissa was already trained.

    "I gave her the handbook to read, but basically she was doing it already," Miller said, adding that Marissa "is a leader in a nice way, not a bossy way."

    Pinellas Central principal Lon Jensen, who has known Marissa since she was in kindergarten, said she is "just really likable."

    "She probably could be a teacher by next year if she wanted to be," he said almost seriously. "She shows endless kindness, above and beyond the normal day-to-day stuff. She comes to school early and does whatever needs to be done. She does it without thought, and she never has to be reminded."

    Getting up early is hard, though, Marissa said. She has to be in bed by 10 p.m. to get up by 6. Sometimes she'd rather stay in bed. "But once I'm up, once I'm here, I'm glad I got up early," she said.

    On the trip from their Clearwater home to school, she and her mother don't usually talk about the kindergarteners. Marissa prefers to listen to music, especially to her favorite band, 'N Sync. Sometimes they compare notes on the way home, but Marissa said she learns more by watching her mom in the classroom.

    She said volunteering gives her "a good feeling."

    "I like helping the little kids," she said. "You get good consequences when you help, like being volunteer of the year."

    Miller said Marissa was recognized by the School Board as Pinellas Central's volunteer of the year in the youth category last year. She was one of 13 county finalists for volunteer of the year.

    Marissa said she also gets good consequences from having her mother work at her school.

    "It's pretty cool," she said. "If I forget to get something signed, I can just go look for her." Having her mother around is also helpful if she leaves her homework in the car.

    She mentioned another good thing about having her mom nearby. Lowering thick lashes over big, expressive brown eyes, Marissa smiles shyly.

    "When I see her around school, I can go over and give her a hug."

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