Donovan Taplin is staying close for now to the community he loves
Donovan Taplin of Bell Island was offered two massive scholarships this year, but chose the one that will keep him closest to Bell Island. - Photo by Bard Sweet/The Telegram
When Donovan Taplin was five or six years old, his grandmother told him he'd make it big one day.
"I don't know what she would say at all because she had 14 kids, but I was like the 15th," Donovan said in the kitchen of his family's home in Wabana, his eyes welling with tears.
His mom, Tammie Taplin, hands him a tissue.
Her mother, Elsie Sheppard, died in 2009. She didn't get to see her beloved grandson go to the Arctic or to Antarctica, or be offered two prestigious scholarships this year worth a total of $150,000.
In June, 17-year-old Donovan will be among a delegation to attend the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
"She always said she wanted to see me do good things. So I'd love her to see it," he said.
"When she passed away, I found out about the Arctic scholarship probably 20 days later. It was the first really big thing I did. That was hard because from then on, I knew I was going to be involved in a lot of really big things and she wasn't going to see any of them."
Donovan, who will graduate this year from St. Michael's Regional High, was offered the 2012 National Loran Award scholarship, valued at up to $80,000.
He turned that down for the TD Scholarship for Community Leadership, worth $70,000 plus guaranteed summer employment at TD for up to four years.
The Loran Award encouraged him to explore by choosing a university outside the province.
It was tough turning it down, but Donovan wants to stay closer to Bell Island and is set on taking communications at Memorial University to further his interest in a national broadcast career.
"I still have a lot of work to do on Bell Island. I know eventually I will have to pass that torch along, but not yet," he said.
Donovan's parents, Scott and Tammie, who were high school sweethearts, knew he was gifted.
"I always knew Donovan had great potential," Tammie said.
"I always told him to reach for the stars or whatever, but I never, ever dreamed of this much."
"Everybody (is) overjoyed, which is great," said Scott.
"But we always thought he was going to do amazing things anyway."
As a toddler, Donovan was fascinated with books.
When he asked his grandmother to read him a story, she'd tell him to go get a book. He would return with a stack and she'd read them all.
He was born on Bell Island but the Taplins eventually moved to Cambridge, Ont., a mecca for Newfoundlanders looking for work.
When Donovan was 10, the decision was made to move back home - his mother is Bell Island's tourism co-ordinator and his dad works for the school board.
Donovan didn't want to leave Cambridge and for awhile kept wanting to catch the next boat and head back to Ontario.
But he joined hockey for a few years, found a love of public speaking and eventually got involved in other activities and founded an environmental group called the Green Island Society, which has organized tree plantings and sponsors an essay contest.
"The community spirit really got me pretty quickly," Donovan said.
"There are 3,000 people on Bell Island, 3,000 family members, really. ... My favourite part of Bell Island is knowing you can make a difference. In Cambridge, I don't know if I could make a difference, but here I knew I could."
In Grade 5, Donovan won an essay contest, and in Grade 6, he was called up to the high school to say a few lines in a drama production because the students were short a player.
When he got to St. Michael's he joined all the extracurricular activities.
Team Teen was founded by Donovan and Grade 9 classmates in response to the reputation Bell Island youth were getting because of break-ins and other crimes.
"Every youth was getting dirty looks in the community. That group was founded to say some of us are doing good things," Donovan said.
After winning bronze for a Grade 10 science fair project at Marine Institute, Donovan applied for a scholarship to participate in an expedition to the Canadian Arctic as part of the Students on Ice program.
He was offered $4,000 and was told if he could fundraise $6,000 in little more than a month he was welcome aboard.
There were personal donations from people in the community, chocolate bar and hotdog sales and benefit dances.
Since then, there has been another $13,000 raised to send him on an Antarctic expedition, plus a few thousand for the Rio de Janeiro trip.
When dances were held in nightclubs, Donovan stayed outside selling hotdogs until the wee hours.
Back when Tammie Taplin worked at the local grocery store, practically every second customer had a donation for Donovan out of pride for the young Bell Islander.
Donovan asked Bell Island Coun. Scott Clarke how to repay all the support.
"He told me to pay it forward," Donovan said, adding he got more involved in more community activities like Tidy Towns and Bell Island tourism. His participation in Tidy Towns led to the founding of the Green Island Society.
Anything he's asked to do for the community, he's willing to do.
"Everything I do for the rest of my life, all my success so far, is because of Bell Island," said Donovan, adding that until he got involved in wider community efforts, he did not realize the number of people volunteering to make Bell Island a better place.
In Grade 11, he heard about Bell Island Radio, a weeklong community radio broadcast headed up by Kelly Russell.
Because of his interest in broadcast journalism, Donovan asked if he could pour coffee or set up chairs. Instead, he was offered hosting and producing gigs. Donovan even got to interview national CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge.
Through a community radio network, he also got to interview Seamus O'Regan from CTV.
Donovan said the Newfoundlander assured him it was OK to wear the province on his sleeve, and not to worry about his slight accent.
As his four-year-old brother Hunter zips in and out of the kitchen, Donovan acknowledges he has little time to spend with him given all his activities.
"When he's home, he's not home," Tammie said, explaining he'll be in his room catching up on messages and work associated with the Earth Summit.
While Radio Bell Island was on air this year, Donovan would often go to bed at 12 or 1 a.m. after catching up on school assignments and set his alarm for 5 a.m. so he could get a couple of hours of work in before school.
He got sick from being run down, but said he doesn't regret it.
One night last year a friend was going to a party and asked Donovan what he was doing. He said he was attending a meeting for Accordion Idol, where he found himself among community organizers 30-40 years his senior. He says they treated him as an equal.
He just started texting last fall, which is quite a late start compared to most of his peers.
"The other day I was reading the zero draft for Earth Summit. I know all my other friends are probably home playing Xbox at the same time," he said.
"When I am an adult, am I going to look back and say I really didn't have a childhood. Sometimes I think maybe I should just quit, take a break. I've been involved in so much since I was a kid, I'll never do that."
He does have a date for his prom in May - Aanchal Ralhan, a Loran scholar in St. John's he met in the Arctic.
And he describes himself as a class clown.
Donovan said he's never been bullied, but there has been good-natured chiding.
Asked if others see him as a geek, or ever called him Sheldon Cooper - the super-intelligent character on TV's "The Big Bang Theory" - Donovan laughs. With his dark, closed-cropped hair and slight build, he could be a teen version of the character.
"Oh God, I get that all the time," he said.
"Some of them literally call him Sheldon," said his mother.
When it was announced he had won the Loran scholarship, students pounded their desks on the floor and hugged him.
"Some people think that's all I do - focus on the extracurriculars and school and whatnot ... the scholar who travelled to the Arctic. That overachiever, " he said.
"They are kind of right. But beneath that normal kid are normal interests. I still like watching hockey on Saturday night."