High school entrepreneurs become 'a unified family'


Nicole Rapp, 17, of Westin, Fla., from left, Marko Shtjefni, 17, of Jacksonville, Fla., Erica Garcia, 16, of Miami, Fla., and fellow group members watch a photo slideshow of their time during the University of Florida's Young Entrepreneurs for Leadership and Sustainability program during a luncheon at Emerson Alumni Hall Friday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 7:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 at 7:40 p.m.

For Tyler Papera, recycling and creativity go hand in hand.

For five weeks, Papera helped collect almost 700 pounds of trash and complete over 4,000 hours of community service.

The 18-year-old was one of 42 high school students who practiced sustainability and entrepreneurship through the UF Young Entrepreneurs for Leadership and Sustainability (YELS) program.

Each student completed 85 hours of community service and two college-level classes. Classes began at 9 a.m., while from 2-5 p.m. the students performed community service at sites that include Phoenix Neighborhood, Wilmot Gardens, Gainesville Compost, Siembrea Farms, Alachua Conservation Trust and Florida Organic Growers.

On Friday, an estimated 200 people gathered for the UF Young Entrepreneurs for Leadership and Sustainability award luncheon. Family, friends and YELS graduates sat at round wooden tables and dined on organic food like fresh hummus and vegetables.

Meredith Willingham, YELS social media coordinator, said no tablecloths were used to conserve water that would be used to wash them. Leftover food from the luncheon was donated to the St. Francis House.

Papera said his sociology class provided his first lesson about environmental awareness. The students learned about composting, where biodegradable foods are reused as fertilizer.

"Through the trash cleanup, academic (work), and community service ... we became a unified family," Papera said. "The entrepreneurship aspect inspired me to go out there and propose new ideas that can benefit everyone's life."

His experience at Phoenix Neighborhood gave him the opportunity to play with underprivileged kids, read and tutor them.

Mike Myers, co-founder of the Repurpose Project, opened his creative reuse center to YELS students. The Repurpose Project, a nonprofit organization that converts donated items into art, was formed to foster the four environmental Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover. Donated items range from buttons and machine parts to computers. Inside the store, highly visible art like lamps made from globes add a unique flare.

"You can make a necklace and earrings from pieces of a circuit board," Myers said. "The style of a hard drive (and colorful wires) makes a really nice necklace."

Myers said the students also made signs with the names of vegetables and flowers for Florida Organic Growers. Shoehorns were painted into characters. The items that the students repurposed were put on exhibit in the shop.

"I'm a baby boomer . we created a lot of the problems," Myers said. "This is a way I can give back. I feel like they are the next leaders of sustainability."

Myers was one of more than 10 mentors mentioned during the mentor recognition portion of the program.

For TJ Villamil, being a YELS mentor was a chance for him to give back to the community. Villamil, the former University of Florida student body president, is the cofounder of Guléjo, which is a socially responsible direct trade coffee business.

"We give back 15 percent of every transaction to local charities and local causes," he said. "We pay a higher premium for coffee directly from the farmers (in Nicaragua) in order for them to live a better, more sustainable life."

Villamil said he has learned from the YELS students, as much as they have learned from him.

"The kids in this program are remarkable," Villamil said. "If I had known about this program in high school, maybe I would have started Guléjo a lot earlier."

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