Paola Castro : Miami Service 2022

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 more of Miami.


I volunteered at two institutions in April of this semester, one being Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and the other one being the Deering Estate. Both Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and the Deering Estate (in partnership with the Deering Foundation) dedicate themselves to preserving and protecting the natural ecosystems of their area – with Bill Baggs placing a stronger emphasis on protecting native species of flora and fauna above the rest. 

At Bill Baggs Park, I participated in helping maintain the greenery of the park by spreading mulch around native species of trees at the park’s entrance. On the other hand, at the Deering Estate, I was part of a Mangrove forest cleanup where we ventured into the forest to collect trash that had washed up into it due to the high tide. Much like both of these institution’s mission statements state, I participated in both preservation and protection of the natural environment through these two service projects.

My classmates and I carrying bags of mulch and the Mangrove forest, photos taken by Claudia Martinez and Paola Castro / CC by 4.0


Both the volunteering projects I took part in this semester were done by the entire Miami in Miami class, as they were part of our class curriculum and organized by professor John Bailly. As a class, we managed to spread mulch over the entire entrance of Bill Baggs State Park and cleaned up the Mangrove forest, both over the span of two days. 

Although these service projects were organized for the entire class as part of our expeditions, it was truly an honor to be a part of these conservation efforts and see how these beautiful green spaces in Miami are managed and improved on a daily basis. I’ve always had an interest in helping environmental cleanup and upkeep efforts, so these projects were very rewarding to me on a personal level. In fact, back in my highschool years in Puerto Rico, I participated in yearly beach cleanups as well as helping out the school greenhouse management efforts, so these projects really reminded me of those days. 

When we were done with the cleanup and spreading the mulch, seeing the drastic difference from before we started to the results afterwards filled me with pride and the satisfaction that we made a real difference that day. Despite the projects not directly relating to my field of study, this feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction in the fact that I know I made a small but meaningful difference is the same. I first started studying Computer Science to be able to make widespread change, even just by myself and my own efforts. At the click of a button, my app or website would be able to help thousands or even millions of people and that feeling of helping others kept me going through the hard hours of intense studying. When I saw the results of our hard work at the Deering Estate and Bill Baggs Park, that same familiar feeling of helpfulness flowed through me. So in general, although I did not choose them myself, I think these projects really spoke to me as an individual, and aligned with my values and interests very well.

Me raking the mulch out, photo taken by Claudia Martinez / CC by 4.0


Throughout the course of the two days these volunteering opportunities took place, I gained a new perspective on many things. Most notably, I found a hope for the future I had not felt in a long time.

In the age of social media, it feels like one is constantly being bombarded with all of the issues of the world again and again, day after day. The forests are burning, the coral reefs are dying, political corruption is rampant, and it seems like everything is hopeless. When the problems are so big and widespread, I and many other people my age tend to think that our small contributions won’t make a difference in the long run. It’s easy to settle into a feeling of dread for the future, and become pessimistic of things ever improving.

However, in the span of two afternoons, one class of students managed to make a noticeable difference to the environment around them. It may not solve the overarching problems of mass pollution or the slow extinction of native flora and fauna right away, but at least our efforts made a dent in the area we chose to work in. 

It filled me with hope. It may not be a huge difference, but if this much was accomplished in one day, how much could be accomplished in a year or two – maybe even a decade? Instead of trying to care about every issue, and becoming depressed over the state of everything, it’s much more productive to pick a cause and do your best in working to improve things. In general, I think I learned that, although my contributions can only go so far, if I choose just a few causes and get to work on them, I can make quite a difference over the course of my life. If other people my age begin to think this way too, well, the future may not be as bleak as I thought.

Where & What

On the day we spent at Bill Baggs State Park, we began the day early and, after a brief explanation of the park’s mission, were provided with gloves, rakes, and bags of mulch to begin spreading across the trees at the park’s entrance. After setting the bags of mulch on the ground at regular intervals throughout the park’s entrance, our class began emptying out the bags and spreading out the pile of mulch using rakes. After about three hours, all the bags were used up and the trees in the entrance were surrounded by enough mulch to help them continue to thrive.

As for the day we spent at the Deering Estate, we began the day a little later – around 11:30 a.m. After grabbing two empty bags to collect trash in, we all put on our water shoes and entered the Mangrove forest. After two hours of collecting trash and dodging spiders that lived in the Mangroves, we emerged with full bags and mud up to our knees. 


Approved Honors hours, photo taken by Paola Castro / CC by 4.0


Overall, I would say that both service projects were a huge success – not only due to our efforts as a class but also because of the expertise of these institutions. While we were prepared to work hard, if we had not been given materials and detailed instructions by park rangers and our professor, these volunteering opportunities would not have been half as successful. For example, we wouldn’t have had the foresight to work early in the morning before the heat was unbearable, and would not have thought to bring materials such as rakes and gloves with us that made the work easier and quicker to do.

Given that we were less experienced and thus were not used to the environments of the Mangrove forest or the rough texture of mulch, many students came ill prepared for the elements. Overall, no injuries occurred, but many shoes were ruined or lost, and a few left with itchy ankles due to not wearing long socks when working with mulch.

In general, however, under the guidance of more experienced service members and park rangers, we were able to complete our missions and leave a positive impact at both sites.

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