Samantha Johnson: Miami Service 2022

Student Bio

Photo taken by Natalia Sanchez //CC by 4.o

Samantha Johnson is a Junior at Florida International University working towards a B.A. in Sustainability and the Environment with a minor in Marine Biology. She hopes to achieve not only one day a PHD but also a JD in Environmental Law and use these to make policies that will help the environment or to be involved in research that would promote this. In her free time, she loves to read and hang out with friends, but also loves to go to the beach and is extremely passionate about the environment.


Photo taken by Samantha Johnson // CC by 4.0.

I had the opportunity to volunteer with Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, FL. Vizcaya was built in 1912 by James Deering, who envisioned it as a place to live and restore his health. Deering named this place “Vizcaya” to honor both Spain and the Biscayne Bay on which Vizcaya is located. He was greatly interested in landscaping and plant conservation, which helped with the vision as well.

Deering hired both Paul Chaflin and Diego Suarez to help bring his vision to life. Chaflin was his Artistic Director and Suarez was the Landscape Architect. As you are walking through both the house and the gardens, you can see the Spanish, Italian, and French influence. You can clearly see how these different cultures have made their way into Vizcaya and have become part of its character. It is breathtaking and truly beautiful.


The different weeds we pulled that were once taking over the gardens.
Photos taken and edited by Samantha Johnson // CC by 4.0

I was able to take part in this opportunity as part of my Miami in Miami class through the FIU Honors College. This class is all about seeing Miami through a different light than we may have thought about it before, and to connect with it on a higher level than just seeing it as a busy city.

This relates to my major and what I want to do in the future. As a sustainability major, I love to spend time outside and in nature. Volunteering at Vizcaya gave me the opportunity to give back to a place that I love to visit, and to help them with maintaining their gardens. They only have three horticulturalists on site, and it is challenging for them to keep up with all the maintenance that needs to be done. It was calming to be able to spend time in Vizcaya and get away from the craziness of final exams and everything that comes with the end of the year. I enjoyed helping the staff at Vizcaya and hope to go back again sometime.


A picture of the weeds I had pulled from one section.
Photo taken by Samantha Johnson // CC by 4.0

I connected deeply with this opportunity. I was excited to be able to volunteer with an organization that I love to visit, and to help them continue keeping their gardens beautiful like they have for years. I loved being able to just take time for myself because that isn’t something I have been prioritizing lately. Even though I was still doing something for my class, it was calming to sit in the gardens and just breathe. I didn’t have anything I needed to do at that moment, and it was refreshing to be somewhere without having to worry about everything that I needed to work on once I got back home. This opportunity helped me remember that I love to volunteer and give back to the community, and it is something I need to fit into my busy schedule. I hadn’t done anything like this all semester and knowing that I was doing something good for me and my mental health, but also good for Vizcaya, made me feel fulfilled and helped me to refocus on what is important.

Where and What

Our volunteer group working in the gardens.
Photo taken by Samantha Johnson // CC by 4.0

On April 9th, 2022, I met up with Natalia (a fellow classmate in Miami in Miami) and we drove over to Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. We had to be there by 9AM and were expected to be there until 12PM. This volunteer opportunity was open to the public, so when we got there, we met up with the rest of the volunteers that were also spending their morning there. We met David Hardy, the horticulturalist that oversaw our group. We began walking as a group to where we were going to volunteer, and he told us about Vizcaya and a bit about the gardens. He also explained what we would be doing for him in the gardens, and why what we were doing was so important. He was the one that told us that Vizcaya only has three horticulturalists and that they greatly appreciate their volunteers.

Once we got to the area that we would be working in, David explained to us that we were there to pull the weeds that were beginning to overtake that section of the garden. He showed us which ones to pull and gave us the tools we needed to begin. It sounded very simple, and I didn’t think much of it until we began.

When we started, everyone had gloves, a spade to carefully dig up the weeds, a cushion to put our knees on and reduce the strain on our backs, and we all had either a trash bag or a large flowerpot/bucket. I personally took the bucket because I figured it would be easier for me to carry around. I began in the section furthest from the rest of the group. I didn’t want to be in someone else’s space knowing that I would be annoyed if someone was in mine. Walking through this section I thought it was crazy how many weeds there were. Whenever I have come to Vizcaya, I had never noticed this, and I assume that most of the visitors wouldn’t have either. What I had previously thought was just part of the design turned out to be weeds stuck in spaces they weren’t supposed to be. Even after I thought I had pulled all the weeds in my area, I realized that there were several I had missed every time I turned around. It was very tedious, but enjoyable. I then understood why it is so important for people to volunteer, especially with this organization, because there just isn’t enough labor to be able to keep up with what is needed.

We finished volunteering around 12pm and went back to meet with David. We began dumping out our buckets into the trash bags, and it was rewarding to see how the work each of us did add up when it was all put together. We loaded everything up onto his golf cart and returned all the tools that we had used. We thanked David for giving us the opportunity to volunteer with Vizcaya and to give back, and he thanked us for coming out and taking time out of our Saturday morning to volunteer and help lower the workload that the horticulturalists must do by themselves.



The results of our volunteer opportunity.
Photo taken by Samantha Johnson // CC by 4.0

As I’ve said before, I really enjoyed volunteering at Vizcaya. The whole experience was well organized, I don’t think there was anything that could’ve been better, it all worked well, and I want to come back to volunteer again. I enjoyed working in the gardens and am grateful that it gave me the opportunity to recenter myself and take time to do something that I love instead of going 100 miles a minute like I normally do.

I think that this experience was very rewarding for everyone involved and will recommend it to anyone who asks me about volunteer opportunities in the area. even though I am going home for the summer, I can’t wait to be back in the fall and make time to volunteer with them again before I graduate.

Works Cited

Bailly, John William. “Miami in Miami Destinations.” Miami in Miami, 26 Aug. 2020,

Bailly, John William. “Vizcaya History.” Miami in Miami, 18 Jan. 2019,

“What’s in a Name?” Vizcaya, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, 7 Sept. 2021,

“Who Was James Deering?” Vizcaya, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, 24 Aug. 2021,

You too can volunteer at Vizcaya! Follow the link below:

Author: SamanthaJ

I am a junior at Florida International University studying Sustainability and the Environment with a minor in Marine Biology. I love the beach and am passionate about the environment.

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