Afifa Fiaz: Miami Service 2021


Photo taken by Nida Khizzar// CC BY 4.0

Afifa Fiaz is a junior pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences at Florida International University (FIU), as a part of FIU Honors. Her main goal is to be able to help people through medicine. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, traveling, and volunteering to give back to the community.


I volunteered at The Deering Estate, an Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL) in Miami-Dade County, specifically doing the Chicken Key Cleanup. The Deering Estate is located on the East Coast of Florida in the Palmetto Bay area. It is marked as a historic site and parts of it aren’t even open to public. Thanks to John Bailly, our professor and an artist-in-residence at the Deering Estate, we were able to host the Miami in Miami tradition of the Chicken Key Cleanup.

Photo taken by Afifa Fiaz// CC by 4.0

Chicken Key is a seven-acre land that’s a mile off shore and is only accessible through canoeing from the Deering Estate. Many bird species call this nature preserve home, and you’re likely to witness marine creatures like manatees or sea turtles during your visit. We are allowed to bring our own canoe, however, we were fortunate enough to use the canoes provided by the Deering Estate. More information on this can be found on Deering Estate.


I had the privilege to volunteer at the Deering Estate because I am enrolled in the honors course at FIU called Miami in Miami. Professor John Bailly, Teaching Assistant Claudia Martinez and my other classmates (a total of 26 people) accompanied me on this trip.

Photo taken by a Deering Estate Staff member// CC by 4.0

Even though this volunteering experience does not tie into my major, I would a hundred percent do this again! This experience took me out of my comfort zone and opened up a whole new world of ways to give back to the community. As someone who is heading towards the medical field, I enjoy helping others and this experience allowed me to do that for both the environment and the living organisms there. Being oblivious to the impact the debris had on the marine life really took me by surprise.


Photo taken by Claudia Martinez// CC by 4.0

As someone who loves the water and animals, this was the perfect place to connect with the environment. Surrounded by some of the most beautiful fishes around me, seeing the baby crabs, and the manatees was far more than what I was expecting.

Another connection to this experience was through the conversations with my fellow volunteers. From talking about our future aspirations to where we came from was really heart-warming. It helped me see that losing yourself in the service of others is one of the best ways to find yourself.


Photo taken by Afifa Fiaz// CC by 4.0

As we stood against the shoreline listening to Professor John Bailly’s instructions, my nerves were getting worse. As someone who doesn’t know how to swim, the thought of canoeing was nerve-wracking. We were given bags and asked to pick partners that had previous canoeing experience. I went around asking and chose a partner who was strong and another who was a lifeguard. We chose our canoes and started paddling, at this point I was actually starting to see that it is not as hard as I thought it to be. I started to feel the breeze on my face and touched the water beneath me. Seeing the Professor kayak so smoothly gave me hope of getting comfortable enough to canoe or kayak by myself one day. We took a small stop at this beautiful hidden area for the baby marine life. At one point, it felt that we were not moving forward only to realize we were ahead of most of the volunteers around us. Once we reached Chicken Key, we tied our canoes to mangroves and decided to enjoy the crystal clear water. We swam with the baby crab and fishes around us, took some photos, and played “who can jump really high and fall in the water.” Afterwards, we took a small break to have a picnic together. This was one of the highlights of this experience as it helped us connect with each other.

Photo taken by Ashley Sanchez// CC by 4.0

After our picnic, we got straight to work! We picked up items as small as bottle caps to as huge as a green flag. I was surprised to see how quickly our bags were filling up. We collected over 20 bags full of trash! Exploring the island as we were cleaning up was a very unique experience. At one point, I got lost and was going back into my panic mode, but luckily I spotted one of my peers who was also lost. Together her and I made our way back to our group. As I was walking, I started to get really dizzy and light-headed. By the time I reached my group, some of my peers saw me and rushed over to cool me down. Thanks to them, I was able to recover within a few minutes.

Taken by Oscar Roa// CC by 4.0

As we started heading back, canoeing felt way easier this time around. We the smooth way back and even saw a manatee. Once we reached the shoreline, we unloaded our canoes filled with trash bags and helped the Deering Estate staff throw it away in it’s proper place.


Approved hours by FIU Honors


Chicken Key cleanup was designed to demonstrate the full extent of the devastation caused by littering, and in my opinion it was a success. This day in general was successful, although we could have better prepared. For example, having almost little to no canoeing experience kept a lot of us on edge, some of us even ran into the mangroves, however, after a while we were able to get the hang of it. What worked were the reusable green trash bags, these bags helped reduce the addition of plastic. The bags were also the perfect size to fit into our canoes so that we are able to bring them back to the shore. Lastly, I felt that there needs to more cleanups for Chicken Key so that the island does not get as populated, as seen in the pervious cleanup photos.

Whether it’s a nerve-wracking or a smooth and familiar experience, volunteering has always been something I enjoy doing. This experience, however, was by far the most interesting and unique one in my life. The professor’s lectures were the cherry on top to this experience; his knowledge and experience helped us see things from a different perspective. In experiences like these, it is easy to get caught up in the fun of it all, but it’s important to remember the reality of the situation. Our oceans are constantly being filled with trash by humans who are careless and irresponsible. Seeing what the island looked like before our cleanups and the impact we had on it motivates me to continue doing volunteering work. It helps me realize that sometimes even our smallest efforts can go a very long way. As Matt Bevin once said, “While it may seem small, the ripple effect of small things is extraordinary.”

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