PLANT CITY – Emily Colburn was just 9 when she first developed a passion for lending a helping hand.
She served as an altar helper at her church, even though she struggled to hold up the cross she sometimes had to carry down the aisle.
“She just loves volunteering and helping others. It’s in her heart,” her mother Pamela said.
The 17-year-old recently became the youngest-ever recipient of the Plant City Family YMCA’s volunteer of the year award. She earned the honor by helping out in countless ways – from helping members with their exercise routines to answering phones – since she first joined the Y a little more than two years ago, Executive Director Rick Gould said.
“The way she’s jumped in to help has been nothing short of phenomenal and it’s been an example for others,” he said.
Gould said Colburn was quiet and shy when she first started volunteering, but her personality quickly blossomed, particularly with the Y’s Teen Leaders program. She now even speaks to groups to raise money for projects she supports, he said.
Fundraising is a very tough thing that many adults even shun, he said.
Colburn said wasn’t looking for any accolades and could scarcely believe it when Plant City YMCA Membership Director Reagan Thomas told her she had been selected for the honor.
“I was shocked because I didn’t even know they had an award for volunteer of the year,” Colburn said. “My goal was not to win an award, my goal was to be myself.”
Each of the 14 Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA locations named a volunteer of the year, communications director Lalita Llerena said.
Colburn helps out at the Plant City Y for about six hours a day, one day per week. She’s also the leader of the Y’s Teen Leaders club that meets Tuesdays and helps nurture its members leadership skills. The club performs community service projects, and Colburn often plans its activities, Gould said.
Colburn, a home-schooled high school junior, first came to the Y to participate in a physical education program for home schooled students. After completing the course, she asked if there was room for another volunteer.
Her assignments have ranged from working the front desk to helping out on the floor of the exercise room. Among other duties, she shows members how to use exercise machines, ensures weight-lifting equipment is returned to its proper places and helps YMCA employees.
She’s also not afraid of the mundane work, such as sweeping the floors.
“She’s the kind of a person who is ready to do whatever needs to be done,” Gould said. “We ask her and she just does it.”
She was born in Portland, Maine and moved to South Florida as a toddler. Colburn, her mother, dad Ron and 11-year-old brother Nick moved to Plant City about 2 1/2 years ago from Boyton Beach.
Volunteering at the YMCA satisfies two of Colburn’s passions – helping people and staying fit.
She hasn’t settled on a college yet, but has her sights on becoming a personal trainer and physical therapist.
Colburn said she’s a fitness buff and would like to help get others in shape. She’s alarmed at the nation’s obesity epidemic.
“I’d like to teach them how to get in shape and stay in shape,” she said.