Verónica Guzmán Betancourt is a Junior at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. She is pursuing a major in Psychology as well as Natural and Applied Sciences, while being a member of the Honors College. After graduation in early 2023, she plans on continuing her education in Forensic Psychology.
One of the most captivating places I have had the pleasure of volunteering at is the Deering Estate in Miami, Florida. It is in the Palmetto Bay area, and it is listed as a botanical garden as well as conservation site. Founder by Charles Deering in the 1920s, this land serves as a cultural and historic landmark for all South Florida.
Through the Deering Estate, I was able to have access to Chicken Key. This tiny island, a mile offshore, is home to an incredible amount of flora and fauna. The island, though completely uninhabited, preserves the life of many local endangered species.
Chicken Key is actually very popular for people to visit. The Small nature of it makes it welcoming to small groups of people. It has a great location, just a couple miles from Key Biscayne, which is already well-known by locals and tourists. Many who canoe or kayak in the area can stop and rest, taking in the beautiful environment. However, there are people who abuse their stay. Some arrive in their small boats, excited and radiating the party energy Miami births. Chicken Key now has a grave pollution problem, endangering the wildlife that inhabits the island. The amount of plastic and trash left behind is endless. No matter how much time you spend cleaning up, there will always be some residue. Human interaction with the land should not be so detrimental to it, on the contrary, our impact should be beneficial. We have contributed immensely to the destruction of this habitat. If these poor practices are allowed to continue, there will not be a Chicken Key for us to enjoy. With all its native wildlife gone, the land will not flourish. Without proper care, this little paradise will cease to exist, only to remain forgotten in the history of Miami.
Personally, I thought that this service project was a great opportunity for me to step out of my comfort zone. Even though, I appreciate and respect nature, I never really find myself being involved in it. My life revolves around the city, not giving me much time to step out into Mother Nature. Canoeing and beach clean ups do not align at all with my major, but they are activities that allow me to connect with people on a deeper level. I have always loved being a part of events like these, where I can meet people. Talking to others gives you culture and opens your mind to other perspectives, which is something that is essential for my professional development.
All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0
With the help of our great coordinators from the Honors College, we were able to embark on this clean up journey. We joined forces with both Miami in Miami classes from Florida International University with the guidance and supervision of John Bailly, our professor. The Deering Estate was extremely resourceful and welcoming, providing all the equipment we needed to get to Chicken Key, from the canoes and kayaks to the paddles and life jackets. They also allowed us to use their facility to our discretion.
This opportunity was a great bonding experience, as we pushed through the water and wind, uniting our strength. Very few people had proper canoeing or kayaking experience, but that was never an issue. Everyone in our group was supportive and patient, allowing everyone to adapt and go their own pace. Nobody was ever left behind; we all enjoyed the ocean breezes and the rays of the sun as they hit our skin. The refreshing ocean water kept us lively and ready for the adventure at hand.
Where & What
Upon reaching our most important destination, Chicken Key, we soon realized the extent to which the island was polluted. We had been warned that it was in a bad state, but it was beyond our imagination. We spent a couple of hours going around the entirety of the island. We grouped up and each had the task of filling up a sandbag with all the trash we could find. However, it was very evident that one bag would not be enough. Within the group I was part of, we were able to fill up as many as 3-4 bags each.
On the island itself, we found endless amounts and types of plastics, ranging from bottle caps to bags. I came across cans of shaving cream, sandals and shoes, toothbrushes, and aluminum. All of these are objects that should not even be remotely close to an island like Chicken Key or any uninhabited island to begin with.
At the end of our journey, our canoes fit more trash than people. The paddling back to the Deering Estate was incredibly exhausting, as we now had added weight in our canoes. Halfway back to shore, we had to transfer bags to other canoes because it had become difficult for my partner and I to paddle efficiently.
Thankfully, we were able to collect a great deal of waste. Back on the Deering Estate, the water level had fallen dramatically compared to when we had left in the early morning. As each canoe arrived on site, we had to climb back onto land and unload the trash before we could lift the canoes and kayaks onto the grass. Once we all were grouped back together, people from the Deering Estates arrived with trucks, onto which we would load all the trash. These trucks then led us to their garbage containers, where we helped dispose of the trash and debris we had found.
This day is a day that I will remember for the rest of my life. I was able to give back to a community that has welcomed and provided for me since the moment I arrived. Being able to share this experience with my classmates was amazing. I have always been an advocate for the environment, growing up in a time in which pollution really sky rocketed.
Daily, I see people throw out things from their cars as they drive, having no regard for it. It is truly heartbreaking to see how people care so little about the planet that houses them. I hope to be able to share my experience with my peers and loved ones, so that they can feel inspired to do something for the environment, too. The more we talk about this, the more it expands. The Earth deserves love and attention, after all without it none of us would exist. It is our home, and we need to care for it, prioritize it.
I never thought that picking up trash would bring so much satisfaction. Being immersed in nature like that, something I normally would never do, pushed me out of my comfort zone. I met wonderful people though this event. We all exchanged stories and supported one another throughout the journey. All the hard work, every drop of sweat was worth it in the end.
“Deering Estate Chicken Key.” John William Bailly, 25 Apr. 2021, https://johnwbailly.com/lectures/chicken-key-clean-ups/.
“Deering Estate History: Historic Miami Mansion & Gardens.” Deering Estate, 21 Oct. 2021, https://deeringestate.org/history/.