Rachel Pasteris is a junior working towards a B.A. in Mathematics Education at Florida International University (FIU), as part of FIU Honors. Passionate about education, she is looking to specialize in teaching secondary and college students in the subject areas of mathematics and science. In her free time, she enjoys reading books, making music, playing soccer, spending time with loved ones, and volunteering in her community.
I volunteered at The Deering Estate, one of the few remaining Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL) in Miami-Dade County, in which we specifically participated in one of the organized Chicken Key Cleanups. Thanks to Nicole Patrick, a former Miami in Miami student who now works at The Deering Estate, they are able to continue organizing and hosting Chicken Key Cleanups throughout the year.
The Deering Estate’s Chicken Key is an uninhabited located inside of Biscayne Bay. A friend told me that the island is named so since the Deerings are said to have kept their chickens there, though many of them are sure to have fallen victim to local wildlife, such as alligators and crocodiles. It is there that we worked on removing debris washed onshore by the ocean waves.
This specific volunteering opportunity was offered to us as students of the Miami in Miami course at FIU. The excursion took place alongside Professor John William Bailly, Teaching Assistant Annette Cruz, as well as my fellow peers, totaling 18 individuals.
Though it did not specifically relate to my major, Mathematics Education, it does tie in with several experiences I have had in the past. During my time at Dade, I served as vice president of the Yes! For Environmental Sustainability Club (which received the Presidential Service Award in addition to recognition from the college for contributing the most community service hours as a club at Kendall Campus during my time there). In the spring of 2020, I traveled abroad to Austria, now a fellow of the Global Citizenship Alliance Seminar. The topic that year focused on sustainability, in which my group in particular focused on researching and proposing solutions to the issue of soil health by presenting our findings to the seminar attendees. Thus, environmental efforts have long been an interest of mine. One of my newfound hobbies is actually tending to my plethora of plants, so going out in the wild on excursions like these to not only experience nature firsthand but also being able to contribute giving back by educating ourselves and organizing cleanups are always great opportunities that I eagerly welcome with open arms.
This opportunity far exceeded my expectations.
The flora and fauna alone were a beauty to behold in and of themselves. There were fish swimming just about everywhere, hermit crabs scuttering away from the strange looking island visitors into the shade beneath the rocks, spiders struggling to weave their webs back together distraught that their homes were destroyed despite their hard work to build them each night after these so-called invaders took a brief claim over their territory to do some dirty work, and many more lurking about.
The connections I was able to make with fellow volunteers was also something I had not anticipated. We discussed our roots, talked about our home loves, related with another about our relationships, our studies, our futures, our aspirations, our hopes.
In all honesty, I could not have asked for a better day to get away from it all before the onslaught of finals week took over me just a couple days later.
where & What
We kayaked/canoed in out onto the open waters from The Deering Estate to Chicken Key, fighting against the wind and the waves. After an hour or so of struggling, we all made our way back to The Deering Estate, having filled 8 canoes with debris that we collected off of Chicken Key together as a group. We helped load up the trash containers into a pickup truck and deliver their contents to the dumpster locate onsite.
There were a lot of strange items discovered onsite. A lot of bottles and especially their caps, which took me back to my days of collecting them for our CAPture Miami sustainable art project. These microplastics especially pose a threat to local species, as those which are threatened or endangered, like manatees, often eat them along with their desired meal unsuspectingly. I also found a child’s plastic blue chair caught in the mangrove knees along the shoreline. While I was getting even more lost in the mangrove forest, I found a couple ropes with what seemed to be Styrofoam tetherballs attached to their ends. In fact, Professor Bailly even managed to retrieve an abandoned mattress on site, in which rats had made their home. Now that they no longer have this place of refuge, it is likely that they will fall prey to local wildlife, such as birds and alligators. This is great news, as they pose a threat to the endangered turtles who lay their eggs on the island.
A lot of things worked, while other things, not so much.
On one hand, canoeing to and from Chicken Key and Deering Estate was a mission in and of itself. I had not canoed since I was in middle school, and even then, I had grown used to the one-way current riding a canoe in a river carries you in, making things much more predictable than the open ocean. While the wind seemed to be in our favor on the trip there, only about half an hour or so, the journey back was not as kind to us, fighting the current on top of trying to paddle against the wind and the waves throwing us to and fro. Coordinating directions with our partners also required a learning curve, muscles we may benefit from exercising in our future endeavors.
On the other hand, picking up nearly every little thing I saw did work in the favor of all, as microplastics in addition to the bigger and bulkier items pose a threat to the ecosystem. I filled up three heavy duty trash bags myself, which, if you factor in the 18 individuals present and the eight canoes available to transport it all back to the dumpster, we were able to collect a whole lotta debris that otherwise would have kept pilling up over time. Hopefully the flora and fauna will benefit from this and other cleanups that have been organized in the past and will be continued to occur in the future.
All in all, it was a rewarding day, to say the least. I hope to be able to return in the future to continue contributing back in ways like these cleanups. As they say, a little goes a long way. I had not noticed how much I had missed going out on excursions like these that not only immerse ourselves in local nature, but also help to preserve it for future generations to enjoy. Lord-willing these will continue to run and others will be inspired to lead and keep the sustainability movement going, that we would cultivate communities from a learning locally to a growing globally.