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. I was able to connect with an FIU Honors/Miami in Miami Alumnus, Nicole Patrick, and volunteered to lead an independent cleanup with her.
The Deering Estate was once one of many homes for Charles Deering: a wealthy American businessman and art collector. He invited his other wealthy friends to visit and experience the tropical paradise of a developing Miami, Florida. Now, it serves as a museum and multicultural center which has helped it earn its spot on the National Register of Historic places. The Estate reaches out to local artists and offers them a position as artist in residency, where they can feel inspired by any of Miami’s five ecosystems. Interested guests can go on guided hikes on the estate, become official volunteers, and children can attend a summer camp that is full of fun and learning. Because of the environmental significance of the land that surrounds them, they join forces with local activists and schools to organize cleanups for the nearby mangrove island, Chicken Key.
They Key is home to some unique, endangered flora and fauna including some friendly fish and not-so-friendly hermit crabs that the Deering Estate is dedicated 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 the forest at Chicken Key is crucial.
I chose this opportunity because I had done a cleanup as required by first semester of Miami in Miami. I loved the experience, and I wanted to share it with a new group of friends. My professor announced in our class chat that Nicole was starting her independent cleanups again (they had paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic), so I quickly joined the group. A few days later, I was asked to lead some of the group since I had already done it before.
Despite being a psychology major, this opportunity aligns with my professional and personal interests. I am interested in ecopsychology which deals with how the environment, climate change, and conservation efforts impact our mental health and wellbeing. Speaking from personal experience, time outside and in nature helps me feel “grounded”, less anxious, and more in control of my emotional regulation. Research supports this, as it suggests that contact with nature is particularly healing to those with low self-esteem and issues with mood regulation which manifest in anxiety and depressive disorders. The social aspect of doing charitable acts with peers is also beneficial, as it promotes relationships rooted in good deeds.
I connected with this opportunity by putting what I have researched into practice. While canoeing and picking up trash, I was trying to be mindful of where I was, my sensations, and how my actions were helping the community. I found the sounds to be relaxing, the sights engaging, and the physical work exhilarating. This is similar to my first experience at Chicken Key. However, I do feel that I was able to better enjoy my time there the second time since I knew exactly what to do. I could have a little more fun, because I was not so worried I was going to mess up.
I connected with this experience on a secondary level that was not present the last time I did this activity. I was asked by Nicole to group a small group of people to the South side of the island. There, I delegated who would do what and answered all kinds of questions. This was fulfilling in a different way because I was helping people reach a higher potential. I am used to leadership roles as I have been assigned to them my whole life. I also got to step out of my comfort zone socially (the zone is very small… I have terrible social anxiety) because I got to talk to people I did not know at all. I learned why they were at the cleanup and what their plans were for the future. It was refreshing to spend time outside of class with people my age, working toward a cause we all cared about.
WHERE & WHAT
I arrived to the Deering Estate one hour early (at nine AM) with Nicole and the other leaders so we could make sure everything was ready for the others to arrive. I helped an employee at the Deering Estate assemble kayak paddles and take them to the place we would be launching from. Once everything was ready, we waited for the volunteers to arrive. We waited for an hour for everyone t arrive, but half the group did not show up. We called volunteers on the list and did not receive answers, so we briefed those who on what the day was going to look like. We also played some icebreaker games to get everyone acquainted. After assessing everyone’s kayaking or canoeing experience, we paired everyone off and canoed to the key.
Deciding where to doc was tricky, as many of us had not been to Chicken Key before. After a bit of maneuvering, we were able to dock and get to cleaning. It was difficult to help everyone feel included and motivated. Some people were just there to get a paper signed, and they hardly tried to pick anything up. This was disappointing, but we were glad they came at all. We picked up trash until all our bags were full. We could not pick up as much trash as we wanted because there were not enough canoes or people to carry it all. One thing I was surprised to see on the island was needles. We were not prepared to pick up hazardous waste, but we did the best we could by using puncture-resistant trash bags. In the future, it seems that we should probably invest in some bags made for that purpose.
After we finished cleaning, we ate lunch and shared all the interesting things we saw and picked up. We shared pictures, fun stories, and ideas for what was to come. One pair found a message in the bottle, but once we opened it, the message was empty (very mysterious!). Once we did all we could, we canoed back to the Estate, emptied and cleaned the bags, and the rest of the volunteers left. The leaders stayed a bit longer to ensure everything was left as we were instructed. We went home exhausted and happy that we made a difference.
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, many people confirmed attendance for the pre-planned event and did not actually show up the day of the cleanup. In addition, we were not prepared to pick up hazardous waste like needles. Thankfully, we had puncture-resistant bags, but it was a shame that we had to use any plastic at all. We try to use the least amount of plastic possible, as we have seen where it tends to end up.Unfortunately, there were also 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 wildlife started adopting it into their lifestyles.
Thankfully, there numerous elements of this trip that did work. We certainly were able to make a dent in how much trash was on the island. Most of the students who attended were very mature and dedicated, so they took this opportunity very seriously. We also delegated very well. One person managed fishing lines and ropes, one person managed large trash, one person dedicated his time to large pieces of Styrofoam, and the rest of us focused 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 (and humans) are full of microplastics that had been previously consumed by their prey.
After some personal reflections and conversations with the attendees, this opportunity really opened our eyes and inspired us to be mindful of our lifestyle choices. We saw so many items that are part of our daily lives: shoes, toothbrushes, soap bottles, and so much more single-use plastic that are all present in our homes.