When Avalon Theisen was younger, she used to accentuate her best holiday or party dresses with lizards.
Real, live lizards. Dangling by their teeth from the material of the outfit.
She's always been one more in tune with the outdoors than the indoors. She'd rather take a nature hike or climb into a kayak than hang out inside the house.
Now, her love for nature – and her work to protect the environment – has earned her national recognition.
The 11-year-old north Tampa girl was named one of 10 national winners of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. Founded in 2001 by author T.A. Barron to honor his mother Gloria, the prize recognizes those who have helped people or the environment.
Avalon's main focus is frogs.
She does presentations on frog awareness and conservation and has organized a "Save the Frogs Day." She makes and sells bottle cap magnets with environmental themes to raise money for environmental causes.
Her efforts have yielded $1,500 for various causes. She gets $2,500 for winning the Barron award.
While most girls her age might shy away from the sticky amphibians, she embraces them, sometimes quite literally.
"Frogs are really cool," she said. "They are very cute and they have always kind of interested me."
She's gone to frog-listening classes and can identify them by their calls. She knows that frogs help tell the health of the environment and that they are an important part of the food web. They also help to keep the insect population down.
George Heinrich, a St. Petersburg wildlife biologist who has taught the home-schooled Avalon for the last four years, loves what he sees in her.
"She's a very bright child," he said. "She's like a sponge. She takes what you teach her and runs with it."
The two have paddled their way down the Hillsborough River and taken nature hikes at Brooker Creek Preserve and Boyd Hill Nature Park. They've even gone to Florida's east coast to watch sea turtles hatch.
Avalon's interest in frogs and the environment has only grown the last few years, Heinrich said. While some kids flit from an interest in Pokemon cards to playing the guitar, Avalon's love for frogs and the environment remains consistent.
"She's just a great kid," he said.
Her mother, Deborah Theisen, tends to agree.
The family is more apt to take a vacation outdoors where there might not be running water – like the forests of Central America – than staying inside the comforts of a five-star hotel.
Avalon's love for the outdoors began at a very young age, her mother said.
"She's always loved being outside," Deborah Theisen said. "Even as an infant, I would put her down on a blanket outside and she would relax and be calm."
Avalon, who has three dogs, two snakes and two frogs as pets at home, would love to work on television for Animal Planet or National Geographic one day.
"I love sharing what I learn with others," she said.