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Tom Wetzel, Sydney Sforzo and Chelsea Lea talk about giving back to the community.
East County Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016 1 year ago

ODA students demonstrate power of giving

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Giving Closet project touches so many more people than the students expected
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

When a pair of Out of Door Academy eighth-grade students began a drive to raise money for charity in January, it was supposed to be no big thing.

After all, they thought, what could two teenagers accomplish?

They had no idea.

In back row, Natasha Rittenhouse, Chelsea Lea and Joey Palmieri along with Bre Brown, front, get ready for a sale.
In back row, Natasha Rittenhouse, Chelsea Lea and Joey Palmieri along with Bre Brown, front, get ready for a sale.

Their idea to raise funds, the "Giving Closet," already has touched more lives than they could have imagined. The girls collect clothing and other garage-sale type items, then host thrift store type sales.

"So many good things have come out of this," said Sydney Sforzo, now a ninth-grader at ODA's Lakewood Ranch campus. "It feels so good. You wouldn't think your little thing at your little, private school could help other people so much."

But it did.

Sforzo and her best friend, classmate and Giving Closet partner, Chelsea Lea, have gone full-speed since March in the effort to raise money for the Taylor Emmons Scholarship Fund at ODA. Emmons, an ODA graduate, died in 2010 after being struck by a car. His parents, Michael and Katherine Emmons, wanted to honor their son along with giving back to the school so they started the scholarship fund.

The first sale netted $2,000 for the fund and introduced the girls to their most interesting customer, Sarasota realtor Tom Wentzel.

"I read about the sale in the paper," said Wentzel, who works for Keller-Williams Realty. "I wanted to find out why they were doing it. It was going to a scholarship and I liked that. Then I met (Michael and Katherine Emmons) and you could see and feel their loss. They are such nice people."

Wentzel packed his car with items from the sale, then drove to Resurrection House in Sarasota where he donated them. "He was a major help in our first sale," Lea said. "We never expected that kind of thing."

When the girls hosted their second sale, this time in Siesta Key Nov. 12, they hoped Wentzel would return.

He did.

"I arrived early and started grabbing shoes and clothes," he said.

By the time he was finished, Wentzel ran up a $550 bill, then then donated another $100 to the girls' program when he couldn't stuff any more items into his Jeep.

"He spent two hours filling up baskets," Sforzo said.

Wentzel said the girls sparked some memories of his own charity fundraisers when he was in high school in Crookston, Minn. "I used to raise money with our football lettermen," said Wentzel, who is 70. "We raised more than any other group."

His early fundraising made such an impression on him that he continued in later years. "I joined the Peace Corps," he said. "We went to Swaziland, Africa and it changed my life."

He said "The Giving Closet" might make a big difference in the two Out-of-Door Academy students.

Giving Closet volunteers celebrate another successful event.
Giving Closet volunteers celebrate another successful event.

"I like to see young people dedicating their time to help others," Wentzel said. "It's what makes America great. As they learn, they will continue. That is wonderful."

Sforzo and Lea said they both will continue giving back after they leave high school. For now, they want to help their project continue to grow. They have now donated $5,000 to the scholarship fund and they want to beat that figure in 2017.

Besides helping the scholarship fund, the girls have been able to donate items to The Visible Men Academy, Mothers Helping Mothers and the Salvation Army. The Resurrection House obviously have benefitted through Wentzel's participation. Lea said some buys are the sales have sent the items to the relief effort in Haiti.

The first sale saw about 10 volunteers work the event while 25 students were on hand for the second event. About 50 students are now volunteering to help the event in some manner.

"We've learned a lot of leadership skills," Sforzo said. "And we've learned how to get students involved."

The second sale was held in coordination with ODA's Thunder Fun Day in Siesta Key. The girls collected many more items for the second sale.  

It appears they have some of the fundraising ability of Sforzo's grandfather, Lakewood Ranch's Dick Vitale, who raises money for pediatric cancer. 

"He has helped me because he is such a great speaker and motivator," Sforzo said. "I want to get people involved, get them that excited. He has taught me a lot."

Now the girls, who have attended school together since first grade, are planning their next sale in March, again on the Lakewood Ranch campus.

"It has been crazy to see how people have helped with our sale," Lea said. "It literally gives me the chills."

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