St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital names winners of “Kids are Heroes” contest
By B.C. Manion
Whether pulling a toddler from a pool, selling gum to help a family with a burned home, raising money to buy livestock for families in Africa, or helping young children learn to read – kids in Land O’ Lakes, Odessa and New Tampa have left their mark.
Four local students were selected by patients at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, with help from Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, as finalists for Kids Are Heroes, a hospital program that has recognized more than 1,300 children from the region since 1996. The top three finishers in each age group were honored on Feb. 20, from among 113 nominees.
Connor Rakoczy, Odessa
5-8 division, first place
When 7-year-old Connor Rakoczy heard last year that the home of a child in his mom’s second-grade classroom had burned in a fire, he wanted to help.
The child’s mother was burned and the fire seriously injured the father, who went into a coma, said Amy Rakoczy, Connor’s mom.
Connor, now in second-grade at Odessa Elementary, considered selling lemonade but his mom suggested a gum sale instead. They got permission from their Grey Hawk neighborhood and set up a stand near the subdivision’s entrance.
They sold lots of gum that first day, but also tied up traffic and aroused some complaints. They moved to a quieter location, near a park, to continue the sale, said Connor’s mom.
They sold enough gum to raise more than $300. Connor’s mom and his dad, Steve, then reached out to relatives and the family chipped in $400.
Connor isn’t the only youngster in the family getting involved. His little sister, Paulina, now 4, got into the act, too.
Connor said it was exciting to win the first-place award.
He thought it was cool to meet Tampa Bay Lightning player Steven Stamkos, and the second-grader is eager to use the hockey ticket he got in his goody bag to attend a game.
Ainsleigh Wall, Land O’ Lakes
9-12 division, second place
Nine-year-old Ainsleigh Wall already knows a bit about perseverance.
After hearing a sermon about giving back at First United Church of Land O’Lakes, she got involved in her Sunday school’s effort to buy a cow for the Heifer International program.
After those efforts fell short, Wall, now a fourth-grader at Oakstead Elementary, decided to continue the quest at school.
With her principal’s permission, she launched a weeklong Candy Canes for Cows campaign, selling candy canes for a quarter each, with proceeds to purchase farm animals for families in Africa. She used savings from her allowance to buy a supply of 300 candy canes. By the end of the week, she had enlisted the help of other students and they had sold more than 4,000 candy canes.
They raised enough money for a cow, as well as a goat, a pig and some chickens for Heifer International, which donates farm animals to families in Africa.
“It just got out of control,” said Ainsleigh’s mom, Heather. “Kids just wanted to buy them.”
The award winner said she was pleased by the honor and happy she could help Heifer International. “I really liked the program.”
Ainsleigh is the daughter of Heather and Todd Wall of the Valencia Gardens neighborhood in Land O’ Lakes. Annette Armstrong, guidance counselor at Oakstead Elementary, nominated her for the award.
Sydney Marcell Fisher, of Land O’ Lakes
9-12 division, third place
After playing inside the clubhouse at Concord Station, a community off SR 54 in Land O’ Lakes, Sydney Marcell Fisher headed home.
As he passed the community’s swimming pool, he saw a toddler reach for a ball and fall in. Fisher, now a seventh-grader at Rushe Middle School, jumped into the pool and pulled out the toddler.
When he got home, he told his dad, Rod Fisher, what had happened.
Rod and his wife, Tracee, were so impressed by their son’s actions that they nominated him for a “Kids are Heroes” award.
For his part, Sydney didn’t expect recognition, his dad said.
As they were getting ready to attend the awards ceremony, Sydney told his dad: “I don’t want to be called a hero. I was doing what I was supposed to do.”
Rod Fisher said he was delighted his son was one of the top three finishers: “I was extremely proud. I felt blessed to have a child that was able to do something to help someone else and to be modest and humble about it.”
The young man said he feels honored by the award.
His dad said he hopes the recognition bestowed on his son will inspire him to continue doing good, whether anyone notices or not.
That’s what builds character, Rod Fisher said.
Marc Berson, of New Tampa
13-18 division, third place
Whether it’s teaching preschoolers in Jamaica, helping at reading festivals for elementary school children, promoting the ins and outs of pool safety or planting trees in Israel, 16-year-old Marc Berson, of New Tampa, enjoys being involved.
The Freedom High school sophomore is heavily involved in Café Freedom, a group at the school that promotes literacy among children from low-income families and conducts a pool safety awareness day.
Beyond that, Berson has volunteered in Kingston, Jamaica, helping young children learn about shapes, numbers and some of the basics of reading.
During a visit to Israel, he planted trees to help improve air quality.
Berson was nominated for “Kids are Heroes” by Rosemary Owens, the assistant principal for curriculum at Freedom High.
He said he felt honored to be considered and gratified to be selected.
“It felt good inside – that what I had done in the community had been seen by other people in the community and appreciated,” said Berson, who is the son Michael and Ilene Berson.
His father was delighted, too. “All of the kids who were called out were doing amazing things for the community,” he said. For his son to be singled out among the winners was special, Michael Berson said.