Gabriella Pena: Miami Service 2021

Student Bio

Photo taken by Lien Estevez/CC by 4.0

Gabriella Pena is a 19-year old entering her sophomore year at Florida International University, majoring in Marine Biology. She is not entirely sure what she wants to do after graduation, but what she is sure of is doing anything that involves travel.

Photo taken by John William Bailly/CC by 4.0


The institution I volunteered with was The Deering Estate, a national landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The estate served as the vacation home of American businessman Charles Deering until he passed away in 1927. The State of Florida purchased the property in 1985 for $22.5 million and is now known by visitors as a wonderful place to picnic, kayak, explore the grounds, and learn of its rich history.

Chicken Key is an island a mile offshore from The Deering Estate, previously known by the few who traversed it as a litter-ridden wasteland. Just a few years ago, Chicken Key had been completely enveloped in garbage created by humans, carried to the island by ocean currents. While there is still plenty of work to do, our efforts have not been in vain, and the island has improved greatly.


Apart from the fact that this trip is part of our class curriculum, I selected this volunteering opportunity for a number of reasons. For one, I really enjoy these kinds of clean-ups where it almost feels like a mini-road trip. Second, you feel better about yourself knowing that you as a person did something you know will benefit the environment around you. Third, I have been doing clean-ups for years since high school, so it felt natural for me to take this opportunity going offshore once again. And lastly, a lot of the volunteering I have done in the past were very big events with hundreds, almost thousands of people participating. As a result of COVID, those events are no longer feasible, and would run the risk of getting me and my peers COVID. So, the Chicken Key was truly the best option for me. I am a marine biology major, so this field of work lines up perfectly with coastal cleanups and environmentalist efforts.


The trip allowed me to connect with myself both on a physical and mental level. The strenuous activities that we were put under toned my body and improved my strength, making me feel better about the physical aspects of myself. Moreover, my mentality improved greatly. There was also a certain aura of calm over the entire trip, and it kept my turbulent mind somewhat at ease. I left the volunteering opportunity feeling not only productive, but also gratifying knowing that me and my classmates contributed to something bigger than us.

The trip connected me with further with my surroundings. Activities like kayaking and canoeing force you to recognize the nature around you. It is well-known that outdoor activities can boost environmental awareness, and it is also known to improve both physical and mental well-being (Leyland).

View from Chicken Key. Photo taken by Gabriella Pena/CC by 4.0


This event was only happening for one day. However, this was planned months ahead of time. A few weeks before our trip, we were given a small debrief on Deering Estate, Chicken key, what to bring and what to wear for this outing. On 06 October 2021, I left the house at around 8:30-ish AM to drive down to Old Cutler Road towards the Starbucks adjacent to the estate to get some breakfast. I ordered a chocolate croissant, drove out of the Starbucks parking and relocated near the entrance of the Deering Estate. It was almost ten when I got to the entrance, so I was running thin on time. Luckily, I had made it. I walked into the estate and was directed by my peers to go to into a small shack where life jackets and oars were stashed. We were then directed to meet the professor out on the shore of the Estate. Kayaks and canoes were lined up alongside professor Bailly. We were given another debrief, but this time, it was more focused on Chicken Key rather than The Deering Estate. He reiterated the appropriate clothing that should have been worn for that day, and told us to team up with someone. I paired up with Veronica. After everyone found their partners, Bailly instructed us on how to load the kayaks and canoes onto the water, and how to get onboard. With the ropes, we pulled it onto the water. I followed after Veronica. We waited for everybody to finish getting on, and started paddling towards the large island exactly one mile offshore. But, this class wouldn’t be what it is without a slight detour. Bailly decided that before we head to Chicken Key to explore some of the oceanside mangrove forests. If getting in was hard, getting out was double the work. When we finally reached the island with our kayaks and canoes, we got a trash bag and gloves that I had brought home to pick up garbage. We must have picked up a lot of garbage, because our kayak became extremely slow and hard to turn once we put all of our trash onboard the kayaks. I asked my professor if we could leave early since both me and Veronica were under time constraints. He was fortunately nice enough to let us go early. Before we left the island, we went on our lunch break, and our class came across a big hermit crab! If only I could post videos to WordPress. We left the island about ten minutes earlier than the rest of the group. The sun was beating down on us, and the current giving us no assistance with paddling, Thankfully, we made it back to the mainland, with me heading back to my car swiftly for other plans I had made that day.

Miami in Miami of FIU in Chicken Key. Photo by Brittney Sanchez/ CC BY 4.0


Chicken Key Approved Hours. Screenshot taken by Gabriella Pena/CC by 4.0


View of Chicken Key from Deering Estate. Photo taken by Vivian Acosta/CC by 4.0

This opportunity was stressful for me, personally. And that isn’t the fault of anyone but myself. But this experience was also extremely gratifying. I learned a lot about the geography, wildlife, and history of chicken key and its neighboring estate. What worked for me on this trip was that with myself being a marine biology major, I was already very eager to come here, excited as to what the island had to offer and how we could contribute to our environment. One of the things that unfortunately didn’t work for me was the amount of weight that the trash put on our canoe. It was very exhausting and it kind of took away the experience of enjoying the beauty around us when canoeing back to The Deering Estate. But more often than not, I was happy during our time volunteering here, and I would do it again when given the chance.


  1. Leyland, Louise-Ann, et al. “The Effect of Cycling on Cognitive Function and Well-Being in Older Adults.” PLoS ONE, vol. 14, no. 2, Feb. 2019, pp. 1–17. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0211779.

Author: Gabriella Pena

A marine biology student at FIU who has many interests, including Beyoncé, fashion, Formula One, video games, travel, world culture, languages, etc.

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