When Eden Odom began her senior year at Seminole Ridge High School on Monday, she was looking forward to catching up with friends and teachers.
But she also couldn’t help but wonder how things were going on the first day at two nearby schools — Golden Grove Elementary and Acreage Pines Elementary.
That’s because the 17-year-old Westlake resident — and 2020 Miss Florida Teen USA contestant — had spent the past month on a passion project: collecting school supplies and backpacks for students at the two elementary schools in her neighborhood.
"I just love kids and couldn’t stand the thought of any of them not having the supplies they needed on the first day of school," she said.
So, with an adult assist from family friend and neighbor Brandi Dugger, the pair spent July building a grassroots initiative in their close-knit community.
(The City of Westlake was formed in 2016 and is Palm Beach County’s newest municipality.)
"We put up flyers in the neighborhood and left donation boxes in front of our homes," explained Eden. They also used social media to amplify the message and, says Dugger, "our friends and neighbors really came through."
As in enough donations (both monetary and supplies themselves) to fill 50 backpacks, which Eden and Dugger delivered to the two schools on Wednesday.
But those weren’t Eden’s only backpack deliveries on Wednesday — not by a long shot.
She also helped deliver to the West Palm Beach Boys & Girls Club of Palm Beach County an additional 300 school-supplies-filled backpacks that had been donated by her mother Amanda Odom’s employer, Tropical Shipping.
While at the Boys & Girls Club, she spoke to a gym full of kids, telling them that "while at times in life you may face challenges, there will always be someone to love you and support you."
That Odom would devote so much of her summer vacation to improving the lives of others is no surprise to those who know her.
"She’s been like that since she was a little girl," said Amanda. "She’s always had a passion for helping others."
The Odoms moved to Westlake in early 2018. Before then, Eden had spent her entire life in her hometown of Jasper, Ala. — population: 14,000.
"There weren’t as many opportunities to volunteer in Jasper," said Eden. "But I would do what I could, like go to the elder care facility and help there."
A naturally shy youngster, Eden also started participating in local pageants as "a way of developing more confidence in myself."
Through her pageant participation, she discovered a love of dance.
She also found that the competitions "forced me out of my comfort zone and helped me learn life lessons."
Once the Odoms got settled in South Florida, Eden said she was "excited about all the possibilities to do great things."
That included immediately signing up for Seminole Ridge High School’s annual dance marathon in support of the University of Florida Shands Health Hospital and the Children’s Miracle Network. The 2019 event raised more than $52,000 and Eden believes "the next one will be even bigger."
She’s also a member of the SRHS dance and cheer teams, as well as a member of National Honor Society and National Honor Society for Dance Arts.
When she learned earlier this year about the scholarship opportunities afforded by the Miss Florida Teen USA competition, she applied to compete in the next event, which will be held in Coral Springs on Jan. 16-19, 2020.
Eden’s application to be a delegate from the City of Westlake was accepted, the organization said in a statement "based on her academic standing, involvement in her community, her passion for the pursuit of excellence and her interest in empowering other young women to follow in her footsteps."
Simply being selected to participate comes with $3,000 in scholarship money to two aesthetics organizations. But should Eden win Miss Florida Teen — and the accompanying scholarship money she can use on higher education — she’ll put it toward her dream of becoming a cosmetic dentist.
"My ultimate goal is to attend the University of Florida College of Dentistry because it has one of the best dentistry programs in the world," she said.
Dugger, who has known the Odoms since last August and considers Eden family ("She’s the only non-relative I trust to babysit my 4- and 2-year-old daughters"), isn’t surprised that Eden has already mapped out her future.
"I’ve never known anyone her age who was so focused and full of purpose," Dugger said.
Likewise, Amanda said she marvels at the confidence and poise her daughter displays when speaking in front of large groups, as she did last week at the Boys & Girls Club.
"I catch myself thinking, ‘Who is this girl?’" she said with a laugh.
Eden appreciates but deflects such praise, explaining that she views everything she does as being part of her desire to grow every day.
"After all," she added, "if you’re not growing, you’re dying, right?"