By Mitch Traphagen
RUSKIN — Clad in hiking boots, durable pants ready to stand up to outdoor work, and a t-shirt donning the skeletal image of a dinosaur, Braden Cliff certainly looked as though he fit in comfortably with the artifacts at the Paleo Preserve Museum at Ruskin’s Camp Bayou. Not only were some of his fossil discoveries on display in the museum, placed near the world famous discoveries of paleontologist Frank Garcia, but Braden had also been hard at work on a fundraiser for the museum: a stand that bore the name, “Lemonade for Paleo Aid.” It’s impressive enough that he has already contributed to paleontology and that he has raised money for the museum, but perhaps most impressive of all is that Braden is just nine-years-old.
On Saturday, Braden presented a check for $73 to Frank Garcia as donation to the museum. The lemonade stand he ran in Crystal River was for a school project, the cause was for something he loved: fossils and paleontology. It wasn’t Braden’s first foray into fundraising. Last year he raised money to adopt a crocodile at an Australian zoo in honor of Steve Irwin, the star of the television series “The Crocodile Hunter” who died after being pierced by a stingray in 2006.
According to his parents, Braden has been interested in reptiles and fossils since he was three years old. He looks for them everywhere and is good at finding them. His mother Julie says that her young son taught her everything she knows about dinosaurs and fossils. Even Garcia, who has lectured at the Smithsonian, was taken aback.
“His knowledge of dinosaurs was better than mine,” Garcia exclaimed. “Of course we don’t find dinosaurs in Florida, but if I were a good paleontologist I would get my act in order and learn as much as that impressive young man.”
Garcia presented Braden with an autographed copy of his biography, a friendship necklace and a necklace bearing an ancient shark’s tooth. He thanked Braden for working to help the museum.
Braden, a third-grader, is in a gifted program at his school, Sunset Hills Elementary in Palm Harbor. The lemonade stand was part of a school project in which he developed a business plan, created a business, and then tallied the profits. Those profits could then be donated to the student’s organization of choice.
“It was 50 cents for lemonade, but most people would just give me a dollar,” Braden said. He prominently displayed a newspaper article about Garcia on the stand.
According to his father Aaron, Braden sometimes gets into a little trouble with snakes, but Julie says he’s good at identifying which snakes are poisonous. “He can identify snakes a mile away,” she said.
He seemed to enjoy the tour of the museum and the opportunity to speak professionally with Garcia but had to cut his visit short — in addition to fundraising and paleontology, he also plays soccer on Saturday afternoons.
“I think this could be a phase that a lot of kids go through,” Julie said. “But he saw [the movie] Jurassic Park when he was three and has since seen every documentary made about dinosaurs. He gets dinosaur videos for Christmas! I don’t think this is a phase for Braden.”
It almost certainly is not. Paleontology is a full-time job, something that nine-year-old Braden already recognizes.
“I found a fossil of a prehistoric plant in my driveway today,” he said.
For information about the Paleo Preserve visit www.paleopreserver.org.