Monica Perez is a sophomore pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at Florida International University. With that and future schooling she hopes to administer marriage and family therapy. With a secondary interest in ecopsychology, she hopes to also use elements of nature and the environment to treat certain psychological disorders. Her current motto is “seek radical empathy” as she strives to understand and share in others’ thoughts and life experiences. In experiencing John Bailly’s Miami in Miami, she hopes to do just that.
I volunteered at the Deering Estate with the combined sections of Miami in Miami 2021-2022. The Deering Estate was once a home for Charles Deering: a wealthy American businessman and art collector and his friends. Now, it serves as a museum and multicultural center which has helped it earn its spot on the National Register of Historic places. There are classrooms and art studios that create an environment that encourages education and artistic expression. Interested people can go on guided hikes on the estate as it is home to Miami’s five indigenous ecosystems. Because of their environmental significance, they choose to work with local activists and schools to organize cleanups for the nearby mangrove island, Chicken Key.
They Key is home to some important endangered flora and fauna including some friendly fish and not-so-friendly hermit crabs that the Estate has an interest to protect. Mangroves are responsible for housing all this wildlife while also purifying the water and turning it from salt water to fresh water. Mangroves are endangered in other parts of Miami, so protecting those at Chicken Key are of utmost importance.
This volunteer opportunity was part of a class I am taking with the Honors College at Florida International University. Professor John W. Bailly (who runs this website) repeats this excursion every fall and winter semester to ensure consistent upkeep of the island. He told us that when the class first started conducting routine cleanups, the island might as well have been made of plastic. These cleanups (along with some conducted outside of the class) help ensure that the wildlife of Chicken Key can continue doing its job.
Despite being a dedicated class period, this island cleanup was not completely out of my field of interest. I am very interested in wildlife conservation and taking care of the planet. This gave me the opportunity to directly make a positive difference in my local ecosystems. I am also interested in ecopsychology which deals with how the environment and conservation efforts impact our mental health and wellbeing. Speaking from both personal experience and theoretical knowledge on the subject, opportunities like this island cleanup are extremely beneficial to one’s mental health. Being active by canoeing or kayaking and contact with the sun makes for healthy brain chemistry which positively impacts mood. The social aspect of doing charitable acts with peers is also beneficial, as it promotes relationships rooted in good deeds. Contact with nature is particularly healing to those with low self-esteem and issues with mood regulation which manifest in anxiety and depressive disorders.
This opportunity was very easy to make personal connections with because of my interests in the environment and ecopsychology. I am generally a very reflective and introspective person, so I spent most of my time canoeing and cleaning reflecting on what I was doing, why I was there, and how the experience made me feel. I took very few pictures (which is unfortunate when considering this website as it thrives on pictures) because I was simply in awe. It was the first time I had ever gone canoeing, so I was simply soaking in this new experience.
It was also a beautiful opportunity to connect with people I had not before. I am of the belief that the social aspects of volunteer work are just as important as the work itself (assuming you do the work, as we did). I was able to hear from people who were not in my class section, so the experience opened my mind to listen to some different perspectives. I was able to speak to the teaching assistant for this class, and while reflecting on my time at the island, I decided to apply for a position as a teaching assistant for another one of Professor Bailly’s classes (a position I got by the way!!!).
WHERE AND WHAT
After arriving to the Deering Estate, we paired up into groups of two and three per canoe. This was particularly tricky considering the group was twice as large as the usual Miami in Miami excursions are. I was paired with a classmate and someone from the other section whom I had only known from Instagram (needless to say, we got to know each other quite well). We tested the waters by venturing into a little mangrove forest as far as the tides allowed. This helped us explore and get the hang of paddling our canoes.
Then made our way to Chicken Key where we explored the terrain, had lunch, and finally got to work. We spent about an hour picking up as much as we could. I did not fill up too many bags for two reasons: I was focusing on small debris, and because my canoe had three people, we could not fit as many bags as the others. I was able to fill a bag to the brim with all the microplastics I could pick up. This urged me to think about the amount of plastic I consume and how big of an impact I could be having on the environment. After some hard work, we canoed right back to the Deering Estate and emptied our reusable bags. The whole class was exhausted by a day in the sun doing some fun exercise and making a difference on our local environment.
Volunteer work comes with its struggles, and this opportunity definitely had its ups and downs. Some things just did not work as well as they could have. As mentioned above, I, like a few others, was not able to fill up as many bags of trash as I had hoped. This is because there was simply not enough room to hold all the trash. Typically, each canoe would have two people riding it, but ours needed to have three because both class sections were combined. Unfortunately, there were some items that were simply too hard to remove without doing damage to the plant life. Some plastics have been on that island for so long that the mangroves learned how to grow through it. For instance, there were mangrove roots that went right through a bottlecap, so removing the bottlecap was nearly impossible without breaking the root of the tree.
Thankfully, there were far more elements of this trip that did work. We certainly were able to make a dent in how much trash was on the island. The excursion was full of mature students that took this opportunity very seriously. Many were working on the smaller pieces of plastic that harm wildlife the most because they are mistakenly consumed by small fish and work their way up the food chain. With enough time, the bellies of larger fish are full of microplastics that had been previously consumed by their prey.
After some personal reflections and conversations with my peers, this opportunity really opened our eyes and inspired us to think about our choices. It made me think about what kind of policies can be put in place to protect the islands similar to Chicken Key that may NOT have ties to a historic building and generations of students looking after it.