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 who is an artist-in-residence at the Deering Estate, we were able to host the Miami in Miami tradition of the Chicken Key Cleanup.
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 Miami in Miami, an honors course at FIU. Professor John Bailly and my other classmates (a total of 26 people) accompanied me on this trip.
Miami in Miami is a course I enrolled in to step out of my degree pathway to have a college experience that is more than what meets the eye of a pre-med student. This experience took me out of my comfort zone and opened up a whole new world of ways to give back to the community. Being oblivious to the impact the debris has on marine life will lead to further destruction. 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.
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 fish around me, seeing the baby crabs, and the manatees was far more than what I was expecting.
One of the ways I was able to connect with 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.
WHERE AND WHAT?
As we stood on the dock, listening to Professor John Bailly’s instructions, my anxiety was 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 confidence of being able to take this on by myself one day. We took a brief pit-stop at a beautiful hidden area to site-see the baby marine life. At one point, it felt as if 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 fish 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 because it helped us connect with each other.
After our picnic, we got straight to work! We picked up items as small as bottle caps to as big as a huge 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.
As we started heading back, canoeing felt way easier this time around because the current supported us and even saw a manatee. Once we reached the shoreline, we unloaded our canoes filled with trash bags and helped the Deering Estate staff dispose the trash properly.
The 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 been 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. We utilized reusable green trash bags because these bags helped reduce the addition of plastic. The bags were also the perfect size so that we could store them in our canoes to bring them back to the dock. I truly believe that there is a need for more cleanups for Chicken Key, so that the island does not get as polluted.
Even though this was a nerve-wracking experience, volunteering has always been something I enjoy doing. This volunteering experience was by far the most interesting and unique. 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 to take advantage of any future opportunities to grab a paddle, a canoe, and a trash bag to do this all over again. 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.”
“Miami Museums: Miami Historical Sites.” Deering Estate, 7 Nov. 2021, https://deeringestate.org/.