Monica Schmitz is a sophomore at Florida International University, studying Public Relations with Advertising and Applied Communications. With a love for writing, graphic design, and photography, Monica aspires to be a published author and work at a communication agency. She has challenged herself with many leadership positions and involvements which have allowed her to see the world through new perspectives, and she is always eager to learn more and use her voice to make an impact in the world.
On October 6th, 2021, my FIU honors class began our excursion to clean up Chicken Key. I volunteered with our professor John William Bailly, our teaching assistant Claudia Martinez, and my Miami in Miami classmates. Our destination was a tiny island located a mile off the coast of the Deering Estate, a secluded island full of wildlife. However, it is also full of trash that has washed up from the ocean, evidence of human waste strangling the mangroves and lining the sand.
When I was in high school in Virginia, I had participated in various beach cleanups at Virginia Beach. At the time, I was merely participating in these events because it meant that I could spend the day at the beach with my friends. Once I moved to Florida for college, however, I began to see the impact our human behavior is having on wildlife and the environment. As you walk along the shore of South Beach, for example, you can see bits of plastic strangled in seaweed everywhere. This alarmed me, and I began to realize the amount of sea life that is being trapped in the waste we dispose of carelessly. While this issue does not relate to my major, it piqued my interest because I am passionate about the environment. I grew up in a twelve-acre yard, surrounded by Minnesota pine trees and countless wild creatures. My childhood would not have been complete if I hadn’t spent my days roaming our backyard, going on scavenger hunts for mushrooms and caterpillars, birdwatching, and inspecting every leaf. It breaks my heart that our environment is becoming suffocated by man-made products and littered with waste. I hope that in the future I can use my Public Relations degree and my love for the earth to alert others of this growing issue.
When I learned that our class was going to be working to clean Chicken Key, I was thrilled by the opportunity to give back to the community. The pandemic has made it challenging to go out into the community and volunteer since new safety precautions have been implemented. Professor Bailly arranged the opportunity for us to go out to the Deering Estate and spend the day improving the environment while still protecting the health of myself and others. Because the beach is uninhabited, we were not in contact with strangers and were able to spread out and practice social distancing from our classmates to maintain health precautions. Volunteering and giving back to the community has always been a passion of mine. Throughout the pandemic, I have been sad that the opportunities to give back to the community have been limited. Our Honors College class allowing us to volunteer safely was a wonderful way to still engage with our local community despite the restrictions our world is under currently.
WHERE & WHAT
Beginning around 10 am, our class began our quest to clean Chicken Key. Water shoes on and slathered in sunscreen, we paired up in our canoes to set sail from the Deering Estate to the uninhabited island. My canoe partner and I were hesitant at first since neither of us had ever been in a canoe before. However, growing up in Minnesota I had spent countless days kayaking, swimming, and jetskiing, so I felt prepared for the journey ahead of us. The canoe ride there was smooth, my partner and I paddled to the island swiftly as we sang and soaked up the sun. As we drew closer to the island, I was enchanted by the mangroves with their vibrant green leaves and the various animals I spotted.
When we set foot on the island, my enchanted awe was shattered. Suffocating the mangroves was piece after piece of trash. Bottles, toothbrushes, and old shoes lay throughout the mangrove roots. The sand was filthy with plastic, some pieces so tiny that they were almost impossible to spot. With reusable trash bags in hand, we embarked across the island to clean up as much as we could in the short amount of time we had. As my classmates spread out across the island, I was daunted by the amount of trash to collect. I was unsure where to begin. My main goal was to collect as much micro-plastic as possible. The tiny shards of plastic pose a threat to animals since they can easily be consumed by mistake. Shifting through the sand, I gathered as many bits of plastic I could. I also discovered many large pieces of waste, from a Nike shoe to a large green flag. I showed the discovery to my friend, and the flag become a token of the trip, our symbol of the task we had conquered to clean the island. As the day passed, I had filled four large reusable bags with trash.
We gathered these into our canoes and said farewell to our island adventure. The ride back was much more treacherous than the ride to the island. Canoe piled with bags of collected trash, we were imbalanced and struggled to keep our canoe on course. My arms ached from the efforts to keep going steadily straight. When we finally made it back to the port of the estate, we unloaded our trash bags and disposed of the trash properly. Although I was tired and sore, I felt a sense of calm wash over me. I felt a connection to the earth as I had made an effort to maintain the beauty of the island and protect this magnificant place we call our home.
Cleaning up the beach at Chicken Key was an incredible learning experience. There are many things I would do differently the next time I venture to an uninhabited island. In the future, I would come prepared with gloves, tools to pick up the trash, and extra sunscreen. However, despite the excursion being more rigorous than expected, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I am determined to return to the Chicken Key island and continue to collect trash to keep the area clean. Beyond that, I will also strive to educate myself, my friends, and those around me about the impact our actions have on the environment and how we can help protect the earth.