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Teen earns presidential service award

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Erica Albert is all about service. Whether it’s making sandwiches for those in need, donating her time to a local animal shelter or working to eliminate animal waste from local waterways, “I just really love community service,” she said.

But when she learned she had won the President’s Volunteer Service Award, the Seaford High School junior was surprised. Albert was part of a school program that enables students to receive a special endorsement on their high school diplomas if they complete a specific number of hours of service. And she put in more than 80 hours outside school in pursuit of a Girl Scout Gold Award. But she was unaware of the presidential award, let alone the fact that she had been nominated for it.

The award — the Prudential Spirit of Community Presidential Volunteer Service Award — has three levels. Albert won the bronze award, which sets a minimum criterion of between 100 and 174 hours of community service for consideration.

Albert had no problem accumulating the hours: She already had 50 hours toward her diploma endorsement by the beginning of the school year, and “I just sort of kept going from there,” she said. Now, her Seaford High tally stands at more than 100 hours, and her extracurricular service activities easily put her over the top.

For her scouting Gold Award, Albert decided to take on the issue of pet waste in storm drains.

She created a website — www.thinkbefore.net — to encourage people to avoid putting waste in drains when they’re at dog runs or just walking their pets. “A lot of people think that when they put waste down storm drains, it goes to a treatment plant,” Albert said. “It doesn’t. It goes directly into the local waterways. . . . It’s really toxic.”

According to Albert’s website, pet waste can generate salmonella and E.coli bacteria. Water polluted by canine feces can cause a range of illnesses in humans, including encephalitis, hepatitis, Legionnaire’s disease and typhoid. And the waste from just 100 dogs accumulated during a two- or three-day period can cause enough pollution to temporarily close local beaches and waterways and damage marine life. And, she explained, it can shut down clamming and some fishing industries.

In addition, the bags many pet owners use to collect their pets’ waste ends up in waterways and bays as well. The bags can harm or kill a range of marine wildlife.

Besides her website and her advocacy, Albert arranged for signs to be posted at local dog runs, including one in Newbridge Park in Bellmore, a popular spot for dogs and their owners from surrounding communities. “I think a lot of people just don’t know,” she said.

The campaign against pet waste is just one of Albert’s activities. She is co-president of her school’s Key Club — a service club sponsored by Kiwanis and dedicated to just the kind of service work that draws Albert. Among its initiatives, the Key Club meets to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which its members distribute to those in need. “We usually have three or four drives a year, and the sandwiches go to the Interfaith Nutrition Network,” she said. “Our adviser goes and drops them off.”

Albert also volunteers at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Levittown, where she is a parishioner, teaching Sunday school to pre-K children. “I’ve been doing that for two years now; I love it,” she said. “I’d like to be a teacher when I’m older.”

She said it is challenging to teach such young children. “We have a very simplified Bible,” she said. “It’s called the Spark Bible. We read them a lesson, and they use stickers and worksheets that they color to retell the story based on the lesson. It’s a lot of pictures, but it gets the point across.”

For fun, Albert and her friends have started a book group they call Bagels and Books. “We’re not an official club yet — we’re still waiting for the school to recognize us,” she said. The club, which has 20 members, is open to both students and faculty. Current membership is roughly half and half, with nine faculty members and 11 students.

“The school pays for the bagels, and the library provides the books,” Albert said. Their current selection: “The True Story of Hansel and Gretel,” by Louise Murphy. “It’s about two Jewish children in Poland during World War II,” she said. “They’re renamed with German names — Hansel and Gretel — so they can survive.” An old Polish woman risks her life to care for the children, in a reversal of the original Grimm’s fairy tale, in which the old woman is evil.

As a self-described budding historian, “I’m just very interested in this time period,” Albert said. Last year, as a sophomore, she heard Holocaust survivors speak as part of the district’s Holocaust Remembrance Day activities. “It was fascinating,” she said.

At school, Albert is in her second year of the Advanced Placement Capstone program — A.P. Research. For her research topic, she elected to study how high schools on Long Island are teaching students communications skills.

Reluctant to criticize, she said she felt schools were doing a good job overall, and teaching some communications skills well. But she felt that listening and speaking skills were not keeping pace. To assist her in her project, she enlisted the aid of John Striffolino, the Seaford district’s assistant superintendent for instruction, curriculum and personnel. Albert will present her findings, along with a thesis-level paper, later this year.

As if all this weren’t enough, she is enrolled in four other A.P. classes: biology, language and composition, psychology and U.S. history. Next year she will add A.P. Spanish to the mix.

For fun, Albert plays trombone and piano. “I play in the jazz band and the field show” — the marching band that plays at football games. Recently, she had to drop piano lessons. “I just found myself a little … pressed for time,” she said.

The most exciting event on her horizon now is a school trip next year to the Galapagos Islands. “I’m definitely planning on going on that,” she said excitedly.

Looking to the more distant future, Albert said she wants to study history, with an eye toward teaching at the secondary level. She has only just begun looking at college options, she said. “I want something that’s close [to Seaford], but not too close.” But she can’t imagine her life without community service. “I don’t know if I’d want to do it professionally,” she said, “but I can’t imagine not being involved.”