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United's Eppley crowned student of the year

| Friday, June 11, 2004

HOMER CITY--As a member of United High School's Library Club, which coordinates a number of service projects at the school, Dispatch Student of the Year winner Justin Eppley, 17, last summer decided to branch off with a cause of his own, and established AIDs in Africa Task Force.

Eppley, son of Rex and Kathy Eppley of Homer City, wanted to raise money for African children living in poverty, and developed several fund-raisers to help his cause.

This year it was through a coffee shop which he set up at the school, offering specialty and gourmet java to students and faculty.

He also organized Survivor United, a fundraiser in which homerooms were assigned a nation of the world and were then pitted against each other to compete to become the world's superpower.

Each grade was a continent, and each homeroom within that grade was a country within that continent, Eppley explained.

Teams won by donating money and school supplies, and so far, $1,300 and five large boxes of supplies have been collected, which will now be distributed to African villages. The ultimate superpower won a pizza and ice cream party--the other superpowers were rewarded with an ice cream social.

"I'm surprised it did as well as it did because I feared that, like some other projects, it would fizzle out," Eppley acknowledged.

Eppley joined the Library Club in 1998. "At the time, I was in seventh grade, so I had just assumed that the club had something to do with books," he admitted. "I like to read, but it had nothing to do with that.

"But once I got involved and saw what it was, we were like a big family."

This year, the Library Club boasted nearly 100 members, all students who wanted to get involved.

One of Eppley's favorite service projects featured a faculty pie throwing session. Last year, each homeroom was challenged to bring in as many nonperishable food items as they could--whoever collected the most had the satisfaction of throwing pies at a faculty member of their choice.

As this year's Library Club president, Eppley rose to the challenge of planning new events and projects for the club, one of which was the cafe.

He was proud to learn that the cafe will continue now that he has graduated. "Nobody had a cause for that type of thing beforehand," he noted. "So hopefully, now it will be...an annual tradition."

The cafe offered a variety of teas, coffee, and hot chocolate, doughnuts, and a specialty coffee. Some supplies were donated, while others were purchased through the school cafeteria at a reduced rate. Hot drinks were offered for 50 cents, as were the doughnuts. One week of running the cafe this past March brought in $650 after expenses, which will be donated to AIDs in Africa.

What Eppley was most proud of though, he said, was the interest and involvement the student body had in his cause through the cafe.

"The great thing was, I haven't seen this much school participation as long as I've been there," he said. "It's never happened. It was an amazing outpour of support."

It was through his service experience, visiting local orphanages, that the AIDs cause first tugged on his heartstrings.

"Obviously, I have no personal experience whatsoever," he said. "But when I visited those orphanages, it just got me thinking how deprived these children are, all around the world, as compared to us.

"The main reason--and this may sound selfish--is that as much as we, as the United States, want to believe we can bring world peace, can bring world comfort, we would still have to remember that African children are part of the equation for the future.

"Ignoring them would only cause backwards movement, rather than progressive."

He said that in Africa, 60 percent of the parents suffer from AIDs or HIV, some were born with it.

"So many kids that are born there--they had no choice," Eppley said. "As they came into the world, they already had a bleak future."

These facts led Eppley to establish AIDs in Africa, "because I believe any money that can be donated to AIDs research, even in the smallest amount, can make a real dent and bring closer the possibility for a cure."

He added: "The most alarming thing is that the rate is increasing, which brings the possibility of the entire African population being vanquished."

Eppley has yet to visit Africa, but remarked that it is something he's always wanted to do. He added that he may get the chance one summer between college semesters.

Eppley was also involved in National Honor Society, United High Network (television production), served as president and public relations officer of the Library Club, was a county qualifier for Quiz Bowl, and a United School District newsletter intern.

Last September, he founded the school's chapter of Young Democrats of America.

He said unfortunately, it's no longer recognized by the school, but Eppley said he was satisfied with the participation this year, and the club's push to get John Kerry elected this November.

Eppley was nominated for the Principal's Leadership Award, National Society of High School Scholars, and was named on Who's Who Among American High School Students and the National Honor Roll.

Last year, he served as a volunteer at Lee Regional Medical Center, working in the emergency department--"I saw a lot of suffering."--and through the Library Club, participated in two Make A Difference Day events.

For last year's Make A Difference Day, the club worked closely with the vocational agriculture department, which gathered numerous bulbs, plants, and trees, which were then planted at the elementary school.

Plots of land had already been dug up, and the club brought along landscaping designs, some of which had a touch of whimsy--one plot, Eppley said, was heart-shaped, and when the flowers sprouted, they grew in a similar shape.

Once the plants were in the ground, the elementary school students tracked their progress through the season.

This year's Make A Difference Day had the club members painting pumpkins for people in hospice care in Johnstown.

"My main focus, though is the AIDs in Africa Task Force," Eppley said.

"It was something I was able to create, and what gave me the best feeling was that the club is willing to go on once I'm gone," he said. "It's something I'm passionate about."

Eppley also planned a light-up night for the school district last Christmas, with a "Christmas Around the World" theme.

"Traditionally, the Library Club is responsible for decorating the outside of the school for Christmas," he explained. "This year, we did the same, but decided to keep a global theme."

"I wanted to make the school district more world aware because sometimes I think we forget how fortunate we are in America," he remarked.

They researched the various holiday customs of sections of the world, such as Africa, Asia, North and South America, and Europe--and had globes scattered around the school's outside circle, accompanied by luminaries.

A Library Club officer spoke about each country's traditions, while a candle was lit for that part of the world.

"When all of the candles were lit, representing each continent, we all sang "Silent Night" symbolizing the world coming together," Eppley recalled.

In his off time, Eppley can be found running the cash register at McDonald's, a job he's held for the past year.

Lately, politics have been a subject of interest for Eppley. A research class introduced this year at United gave him the opportunity to present his political hypothesis on "Consumerism and Society."

This research paper--in which Eppley received 295 out of a possible 300 points--was a source of pride for Eppley, "because it was one of the first projects where I presented my own thesis, my own argument, and my own thoughts." Later, he hopes to expand on his theory and turn it into a non-fiction book.

St. Vincent College is where he'll be heading in the fall, with plans to study international business and marketing.

"My dream job is to be able to work within a television network as a marketing and promotions director," he noted.

He said his extensive work with the public for so many years has given him a solid background for this field of study. "I feel that, over time, I've been able to gain an understanding of the public at large," he stated. "Obviously, I'm very young, but I think that if you find the elements that initiate the human mind, you can achieve new heights."

What most interests him is television programming, which he believes has fallen to its lowest depths. "What I see anymore is television and marketing executives who are willing to throw anything at the people, not believing in its worth, and then it fails.

"We need to go back to a time when there was a delicate mix of shows that executives believed in and got excited about promoting."

In his mind, there aren't many shows today that give off that vibe.

"The last of a dying breed died this May," he said, referring to the show Friends. "If you ask people now, what show do they identify with, I don't think you'll be able to find one."

While at St. Vincent, he said he hopes to remain politically active, particularly with the school's Young Democrats organization.

What scares him most about being a college student "is being in a completely different pool of people," he stated.

"For 13 years, I've been with the same people, and I've grown to know them. It's sort of like being introduced to a whole new family and starting all over again, at the bottom of the ladder."

The people he meets and new friends he will grow to know would most be surprised, Eppley said, by his odd sense of humor.

"That's why I would really like to be a promotions director," he noted. "I think I have a lot of creative ideas."

In a world that emphasizes technology more and more every day, Eppley stated that his fears for his generation are that these technologies will not be integrated correctly.

"I fear that if we're not able to counteract the situation with Iraq and the situation with the Islamic world, that we're going to tend to go backwards in progress," he said.

"We can't practice isolationism, but at the same time, we need to open a dialogue with the rest of the world."

"For example," he continued, "right now, the Bush administration is trying to open up a line of communication through television campaigns.

"The interesting aspect of it all is while we're engrossed in this campaign, at the same time our television is being pumped in through satellites to the Islamic people, and they're getting a double negative viewing of our culture.

"So I think what we need to do as a government is engage on a more personal level."

Gandhi was Eppley's choice dining partner.

"He had an extreme and rare influence upon his people, and was able to create an atmosphere that was conducive to peace. I think he could give invaluable advice that would lead to some great solutions to problems the world is facing today."

Eppley bucks the stereotypes pinned to so many young people today, by achieving not only academic success, but also giving back to his community in any way he can.

"In general, I think service is important because there are so many ways in life that you can receive satisfaction," he remarked.

"Unfortunately, many of them are only temporary. Service, on the other hand, can bring a constant stream of satisfaction that gives you a sense of importance and being within the world."

He added that his overall high school experience taught him many things, the most important being that one person truly can make a difference.

High school allowed Eppley to come into his own, "And I realized that, if you are able to gather a group together, one person really can make a difference in the lives of others.

"I realized that if you set your mind to something, you can do anything."

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