Michelle Puentes: Miami Service 2021

Student Bio:

Michelle Puentes is a sophomore student pursing a double degree in Art BA and Psychology with an Italian Minor in Florida International University. Her passions encompass analyzing classical art, studying about the human mind, learning about the Italian culture and teaching children in her church. She aspires to become an art therapist for children in hospitals or with emotional struggles, and wants to travel to many countries to explore the lifestyle of others.

Photographed by Michelle Puentes CC by 4.0


The institution I volunteered in during my service was the Deering Estate located in Palmetto Bay, Florida, where we went to a nearby island named Chicken Key to do a community beach clean up in my class. Made possible thanks to Florida International University Honors College’s Miami in Miami class, we were granted the access to canoe and land on Chicken Key in exchange for doing a beach clean up on the island.

The Deering Estate is a national landmark on the National Register of Historic Places and is situated in a portion of Everglades Restoration Project. Chicken Key is one mile off shore from this preserve, and debris and trash from around the coast of Miami collects towards the uninhabited island of Chicken key. Beach cleanups in this area is often essential as much trash is collected progressively at the shore every day.


I chose this specific place to volunteer because the opportunity was given during my Miami in Miami class on our excursion to Chicken Key. It was directed by our professor John Bailly and 30 other students combined from both Miami in Miami classes. It was a unique opportunity to get close together as a class after just knowing each other from two other excursions, and making connections as we all completed a service to the environment. This volunteer service does not relate directly to my major in Art and Psychology. However it does relate to my interest in exploring nature in a form of kayaking and getting to see beyond the shore. Although environmentalism is not my passion, it was definitely fun doing my first beach clean up with people who are passionate and interested in saving the environment from waste. Moreover, it brought awareness to me on how much consumption a single human can have with every single soda bottle they drink or pack of chips they consume. It made me realize that almost all of nature’s packaging is decomposable and safe for the environment, but human made packing is often destructive and harmful. It made me realize how important beach clean ups are around the world in order to maintain a cleaner, safer environment for all creatures.

Photographed by Michelle Puentes CC by 4.0


I connected with this opportunity through immersing myself in the beauty of nature under the mangroves, clear shallow waters, and beautiful sea grass plants and reefs that were nearby Chicken Key. It was an amazing opportunity getting to explore the raw keys of Florida which are uninhabited and full of life with fish, hermit crabs and crabs crawling all across the the sand and rocks. I also saw for the first time a huge hermit crab about the size of a knuckle, which was cool since I used to have a small hermit crab pet when I was younger.

I additionally had the opportunity to connect with my fellow classmates and even the other group of the class. It was so much fun getting to see all of us interact and work together to do the most we can to get trash off the beach, and many of us were able to fill up many bags with trash to take out. I had the opportunity to go snorkeling with another classmate and go deeper into the sea and together spot out different creatures and plants we saw. While kayaking, I got to know my friend from my class more and also another person from the other group by knowing their interests and majors. It was unique as a entire class being able to enjoy the nice cool salty water under the bright beautiful sun that day, and all laughing and struggling to kayak at first. Overall, it was exciting getting to connect not only with nature, but also my classmates which we have gone through everything .

Photographed by Michelle Puentes CC by 4.0


On the day of the volunteering, we first kayaked all the way to Chicken Key from the Deering Estate. We had a bright sun and few clouds, so the weather had favored us. We raveled through the mangroves in a small trail we went through and went deep inside to explore. Afterwards we kayaked out into the open sea and made our way to Chicken Key. When we arrived, we explored the island for a bit and took a dip in the water. We then began to use recyclable bags in order to collect the trash from the beach. Walking around at first, I only collected tiny pieces of trash such as bottle caps and small pieces of plastic. I could not find huge pieces of trash around most of the area as other people had found. It was not until our teacher assistant pointed out an area with lots of trash that I was able to fill up my bag immediately. There was a small corner that contained many plastic bottles and soda cans that were entangled in between the mangroves and water. There I was able to fill up and clean the dirty place. Although there was so much trash to pick up, at least the small amount I filled with my bag can make a huge difference in the accumulation of trash at Chicken Key. Afterwards, we collected all the trash into the canoes and placed in my canoe around four trash bags and a plastic bin for bottles. We canoed back to land very exhausted from the long trip, but it was an amazing fun time.



Overall, my first time doing a beach clean up was a unique and grand opportunity. The canoe experience had worked for me well overall, since I was with two other individuals and I took turns with my friend to canoe the boat. The students, assistants and professor definitely made it an enjoyable experience by most of us together attempting to kayak for the first time. We were able to arrive safely at the island and without any troubles. When picking up the trash, what didn’t work for me was the gloves I had brought, which were medical gloves, and I instead had to pick up trash with my hand. It wasn’t as bad as I thought, as most trash had been washed by the sea. The difficult part was definitely being able to access the trash that had been embedded in the deeper part of the mangroves. It would be more convenient next time to bring a trash pick up stick to access these areas. The bags themselves were sufficient but not so easy to tie, so trash had the possibility to fall out. When we all went back, we were able to organize the trashes in several canoes, and off we went to the shore. After arriving, we settled the trash in a truck, so we didn’t have to carry it all the way across back, making it easier.

Overall, it was a wonderful experience being able as a class to do a service to nature and clean up all the human made mess. It had me think how governments should invest more money in having beach and even park cleanups with incentives in order to get people more involved into this. Volunteering is good, but it should also be a responsibility of the local government to spend budget on keeping nature clean and beautiful the way it should be, instead of wasting taxpayer money on new development ruining the environment. I hope to be able soon to contribute to more events like these and have my small action make a difference in the world we live in.

Author: mpuen017

Michelle Puentes is a sophomore student pursing a double degree in Art and Psychology with a Certification in Italian Language at Florida International University. She loves to explore and travel, learn new languages, draw and paint, play guitar and serve in her church. She aspires to become an art therapist for children with emotional or physical struggles, and wants to travel around the world to immerse in different lifestyles and appreciate the art and cuisine.

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