Palmetto High School junior Melissa Ellenburg has had a busy high school career. In the first three years, she worked on and received her Girl Scout Gold Award, volunteered as an aide at Monkey Jungle and went to Costa Rica to work with monkeys. She volunteered at Monkey Jungle and went to Costa Rica with her sister, Christine, and her brother, Kevin. The three are triplets.
“I think from an early age we learned sharing, earlier than other kids would have,” she says. “We never had a moment in our life where we were bored or alone. It helped us with the ability to make friends. We weren’t the kids crying no mommy, don’t leave me. We always had the support of each other.”
Ellenburg worked with Christine on the Gold Award and it is tied to her work with monkeys. She wrote and illustrated a picture book about monkeys.
“It was fun, I’ve always loved drawing,” she says. “That part was the most fun for me. The story was one I really enjoyed writing. I loved learning about the rain forest and the ecology system.”
She took an Advanced Placement Environmental Science class and then took a lot of what she learned and tried to translate it into something that kids could understand.
“I used the monkeys to make it more fun and interesting,” she says. “It didn’t take long to write the book; little more than a week. But the illustrations took about a month.”
Her story is printed in the same book as one by her sister Christine. But the story is different.
“They have completely different character,” Ellenburg says. “Mine was a white face capuchin named Marcel. He was completely made up.”
While she enjoyed the project, she learned that writing for children is a lot more complicated than she thought. Ellenburg and the other Girl Scouts in her troop went to Palmetto Elementary’s After School Care to read the books to the children.
“It was where we went to elementary school and we wanted to keep it in the community,” she says. “We also donated to underprivileged schools. I think we kept three within the family and donated the rest to schools.”
At Palmetto, Ellenburg is a member of the Pink Ribbon Club and Chatonettes, the competitive dance team. She participated in three of the five dances they performed at a national competition in the spring. “I was in two team category dances,” she says.
“I was in the medium-sized ensemble that got third place. It’s something I’ve wanted every since I was a freshman, to get a medal in competition, so it was sort of a dream come true.
“We did very well. Our scores were very high. We received superior scores in the dance I was in. Out of 100, superior is anywhere from 90-100.”
Ellenburg is also in the Biology Club. “We have meetings about different animals and some weeks we learn about an endangered species,” she says.
Going away to college may be even more difficult for a triplet. The Ellenburgs are considering several schools, including the University of Florida, the University of Miami and Vanderbilt.
“I’m also interested in Emory,” she says. “I do know that I want to go to a school that has a good science program.”
Beyond that, she is not sure, and cannot say for certain what she plans to major in. “I am interested in psychiatry,” she says.
Nicole Lopez was president of the Class of 2012 at Palmetto High School for all four years of her high school career, accumulating more than 1,000 community service hours for her efforts. Many of those hours came from in-school activities working as class president.
“I’ve met so many people being class president, I’ve gotten to know more of my classmates,” Lopez says. “I know the behind the scenes activities. It’s fun to plan things and see everyone’s face.”
Lopez says that, at the same time, it was a hard job because she had to please more than 700 students in her class. She had to keep in mind that every person counted.
In her tenure, she worked on a variety of projects, including one to encourage the class when they were juniors to take the FCAT Science test.
“We offered them a trip to Disneyworld if they got a four or a five,” she says. “It brought our passing rate up more than we thought it would. Not only did it improve our grade, it was a fun trip.”
Lopez says 45 of her classmates went on the trip. The FCAT Science Test counts for the school grade, but schools have had trouble in getting juniors interested in taking the test and doing well.
“The year before, the scores went down, so our school grade went down,” Lopez said, “So the junior class funded the trip.”
The trip was taken this past December, when that junior class had gone on to be seniors.
Lopez had plenty of ideas for new, endof- the-year activities for seniors, including a field day. That would come after prom and a Grad Bash, the annual night at Universal Studios. Palmetto used to do Grad Night at Disney World, but Disney cancelled Grad Night.
“This is the first year Palmetto has done Grad Bash,” she said.
Along with being class president, Lopez was in all of the honor societies and she was a member of the orchestra.
“I’ve been playing since elementary school,” she says. “I started playing in school in middle school and I loved it. I didn’t have a chance to play here in high school until my junior year.”
The orchestra class held concerts three times a year and played for the school musical, which was Hello Dolly.
“It’s something I always loved,” she says. “I love playing during school because it’s a class where I can go and I don’t have to worry about academics or homework. I can just go and play.”
As the historian for Interact, Lopez participated in the club’s community service projects, including the talent show that raises money to build wells in Africa.
Lopez also volunteered at St. Louis Catholic Church as a servant leader.
“We lead them (middle and high school students) on retreats,” Lopez says. “Every Tuesday the middle school kids come in and on Sunday the high school kids come in. It’s like their catechisms class, but in a more fun environment.”
As for college, Lopez applied to several Florida universities and was accepted into all of them. Her decision to go to the University of Florida factored in the financial aid package.
As for her major, she has some ideas. “Since I’ve been so involved as a leader, I would love to major in business or entrepreneurship,” she says. “I really like the whole aspect of helping people.”
Palmetto High School senior Josh Barkow has dedicated several hours a week to Friendship Circle, a local program where teenagers interact with children who are mentally challenged.
“My mom got me into it, I started in seventh grade,” Barkow says. “It was a way to do community service that didn’t require outside experience and it was a kind of a personal thing.”
Barkow has an aunt who is mentally challenged.
“She lives at home with my uncle,” he says. “It’s a way to give back.”
In middle school, Barkow participated in a Sunday morning program with Friendship Circle. At that time, he would go and interact with a group of kids.
“Since ninth grade, I’ve done the same program at his home with the same kid,” Barkow says, adding that the boy is in middle school today. “We usually play on his trampoline and we play basketball. He likes to wrestle, so we wrestle around and I let him pin me. If it’s hot outside, we play board games.”
Barkow is in the program with one of his cousins. Originally, he went to Friendship Circle with an older cousin who attended Coral Reef, but when that cousin graduated, a younger cousin who is going into high school took his place.
“There are always two at the same time,” Barkow says. “The parents are there too. It brings a better reaction when there are two people.”
It’s helpful to have two of them attending on those days when the child they are visiting doesn’t want to engage. Barkow says it changes the dynamic when there are two of them saying “come on, let’s do something.”
Each year Friendship Circle has an annual walk, which Barkow participates in. The money raised goes for the program.
Barkow says being a part of Friendship Circle has taught him not to take for granted what we have as fully functioning humans, as well as the value of being there for someone.
“He’s expecting me and I know he wants me to be there,” Barkow says. “It allows him to branch out. Although he does have some friends in the middle school, I don’t feel they understand the situation the way we do. We’re unselfish because we do what he wants to do. For an hour-and-a-half every Friday, the family knows they don’t have to be watching him every second.”
Barkow’s extracurricular activities include the Lexus Eco-Challenge. He is on a team with four other people.
“We won $10,000,” Barkow says. “We created a campaign called the No Idle Zone. It was a school effort. We made a public service announcement. We made fake tickets that say facts about CO2 emissions or facts about cars idling.”
He says Palmetto High students arrive at school as early as 6:30 a.m. and leave their cars idling while they catch a few extra minutes of sleep, to the detriment of the environment.
“With this program, we had a couple of presentations at Pinecrest Elementary,” Barkow says. “We had a presentation about the Everglades and renewable energy.”
The group qualified for the final program. The winners receive $35,000 that is divided in a several ways, some going to the school’s science programs. Barkow’s portion of the $10,000 is being saved for college.
Barkow is also active in BBYO, both on the chapter level and regional level. He has been to the organization’s international convention and has even planned a convention for 50 members in the Keys.