Paola Castro: Miami Service 2021

Selfie taken by Paola Castro/ CC BY 4.0

Paola Castro is a senior majoring in Computer Science at Florida International University. Having grown up in Puerto Rico, and later coming to pursue higher education in south Florida, she was able to meet other people of various cultural backgrounds and learn more about the vibrant communities of south Florida. As someone who is interested in the history, art, writing, and politics of the Caribbean and south Florida, she is eager to explore Miami in this course.

Miami in Miami Chicken Key Cleanup Crew,  Photo taken by Deering Estate employee / CC by 4.0

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WHO

For my Miami Service Project, I volunteered at the Deering Estate – who, in partnership with the Deering Foundation, dedicates itself to preserving and protecting natural ecosystems. At the Deering Estate, I participated in a Chicken Key beach cleanup along with the rest of my Miami in Miami class, all thanks to Professor Bailly organizing the event. 

Without an organized event, Chicken Key is not even open to the public, as it is an uninhabited island under the Deering Estate’s protection – so an organized cleanup is the only time people are allowed to enter. Needless to say, I was excited to be allowed to visit Chicken Key, let alone help in its upkeep and cleanup.

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WHY

This volunteering experience was a part of our Miami in Miami expeditions this semester, all arranged by Professor John Bailly. Together with my entire class, we canoed over to Chicken Key to help with cleanup as part of our coursework. 

I’m glad to have participated, as I have always had an interest in environmental conservation – especially when it comes to the plastic waste getting into our oceans and causing harm to dozens of aquatic species. Due to the fact that I grew up on a tropical island in the Caribbean, beach upkeep and coming to the aid of animals that dwell in the ocean comes naturally to me. Back home in Puerto Rico, I lived right next to a protected beach and helped turtles reach the ocean every year! I also participated in many beach cleanups for my community service in high school.

As for how this project connects to my studies, this volunteering experience does not connect directly with my major in any way, since I am studying Computer Science. However, my work at the Deering Estate does connect to the reason why I chose to study this major in the first place. The initial reason I was so interested in studying Computer Science was because of the way what we do online can positively affect the real world. Making friends, finding partners, and organizing group events for public good, such as the volunteering project at Chicken Key, can all start online and translate into real relationships and actions outside of online spaces. Overall, I became interested in my field because of the amazing effects it can have in the long run, such as spreading awareness for conservation projects (like those hosted by the Deering Foundation) and its power in organizing groups of people for good causes. One of the first ways to do great things in any community is to first gather people for the job, and technology expedits that process tremendously. 

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HOW

Classmates on the way to Chicken Key,  Photo taken by Cat Carrasco / CC by 4.0
Trash seen at Chicken Key,  Photo taken by Paola Castro / CC by 4.0

The cleanup at Chicken Key struck very close to home, in more ways than one.

In one sense, it reminded me a lot of home. The way the canoe paddle felt in my hands reminded me of kayaking as a young girl off the coast of my hometown. The mangroves growing wildly resembled those growing on the beach on the south side of my island. Chicken Key reintroduced me to some familiar characters, such as the hermit crabs, playful fish, and lizards wandering around the ground near the mangroves and in the shallow waters leading up to them.

It all just felt so familiar. That is, until I set my sights on the piles of garbage plaguing the island.

Besides the ways it reminded me of home, the trash we found made me reflect on the waste I create on a day to day basis. Not only that, but it made me realize that trash does not stay in the place you left it. A toothpaste tube or an old pair of sneakers thrown out in your own home may both find their way back to the ocean eventually. The amount of waste we create is not isolated, it connects and disrupts our precious ecosystems in one way or another – and seeing all those miscellaneous items piled up on the island made me face that fact. It encouraged me to seek out more sustainable options in my own life. And although my waste reduction may not make a huge dent in the face of the consumerist society we live in, my pieces of trash are one less thing the next group of Chicken Key cleanup crews need to pick up.

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WHERE & WHAT

We started the day choosing life jackets and paddles for canoes that were appropriate for our height and arm length. After choosing canoe partners amongst the class and procuring all the materials, including trash bags, we dragged the canoes to the water’s edge and started boarding them carefully. Thus began the rowing, made even more difficult due to the wind being against us.

After about 45 minutes of effort, our tired arms had finally brought us to the shore of Chicken Key. Then, we tied up our kayaks, made sure they were secure, and had a quick meal to recharge from all the difficult rowing. Finally, we got to work. Everyone split off into teams and headed towards a different part of the island in order to get the most amount of trash possible. The trash we found came in all shapes in sizes, ranging from plastic bottle caps to shoes to abandoned stop signs.

After we had filled all our trash bags, we loaded them evenly onto all the kayaks and started our expedition back towards the Deering Estate. Lastly, we dumped the trash in the designated dumpster area, washed off our supplies, and said our goodbyes to the staff at the Deering Estate. 

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WHEN

Accepted Service Hours, photo by Paola Castro / CC by 4.0

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SUMMARY

Utterly wiped out after paddling back from Chicken Key, Photo taken by Cat Carrasco / CC by 4.0

My day spent at Chicken Key was certainly an experience I’ll never forget.

It was challenging at times, sure, just like any experience worth its while. The most challenging part had to be when we were all canoeing to and from the island. Although I have canoed and kayaked in Puerto Rico many times before, it is always a challenge of endurance – especially when you’re against the wind and tides as we were on the way to Chicken Key.

More than challenging, though, it was rewarding. Picking up trash, both big and small, brought with it a sense of accomplishment after seeing the result of our efforts in the number of trash bags we hauled back with us. It was easy to keep working despite the fatigue, especially when I could take turns with my classmates and they could help me spot garbage I had missed.

In general, I couldn’t have asked for a better Miami Service Project experience than making a positive change with the help of my peers and the lovely people at the Deering Estate.

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