Gabriella Peña: Miami Service 2022

Student Bio

Photo taken by Lien Estevez/CC by 4.0

Gabriella Pena is a 19-year old entering her sophomore year at Florida International University, majoring in Marine Biology. She is not entirely sure what she wants to do after graduation, but what she is sure of is doing anything that involves travel.

Deering Estate. Photo taken by Gabriella Pena/CC by 4.0


The first volunteer opportunity I had was with Bill Baggs State Park, located in Key Biscayne and known to be home to beautiful beaches and the Cape Florida Light, the oldest standing structure in Miami. The second institution I volunteered with is the Deering Estate, a historical landmark and what used to be the winter home of businessman Charles Deering until he passed away in 1927. Cleanups and other landscaping jobs are hosted at these parks regularly to beautify and maintain the nature of the parks for years to come. Various volunteering opportunities hosted at these places include weeding, mulching, gardening, cleaning up, etc.


The volunteering opportunity was given to our Miami in Miami class by Professor Bailly of the Honors College.

While I did not necessarily select these opportunities, I volunteered regardless. Not only because it was technically required, but because volunteering always end with a feeling of fulfillment that is hard to find in many of the other activities that I perform on a daily basis. And as many know, volunteering benefits your community, living and nonliving. This might not count as a reason, but it doesn’t hurt that I always come away from volunteering days with funny stories. I also get to talk to new people all the time when I volunteer, and potentially new long-term friends.

As a marine biology major here at FIU, this volunteering activity definitely involves my studies to a certain extent. Especially with the mangrove cleanups, as I had just recently learned about mangrove swamps in my coral reef biology class. And since I have a natural keenness towards all things animals, particularly marine animals, I can notice things that others might ignore or mistake for being something nonliving. Being in an area as biologically productive as a mangrove swamp will never disappoint any zoologist or marine biologist. As for Bill Baggs State Park, while removing weeds isn’t necessarily connected to marine biology, I did take a stroll along the coast during our lunch break and saw many things like chiton, crabs, fish, and dead coral.


I connect with this opportunity mainly through the flora and fauna. As I mentioned before mangrove swamps are high in productivity. Fish darting through the roots, spiders catching prey in their webs, mollusks suctioned to old bottles of alcohol. No matter how busy our own lives might seem, it will never be anywhere near the level of goings on in the non-human world. There are a million things happening each second, most of which we do not even get to see. While we see ourselves as more complex than any other organism on the planet, the opposite is also true in many ways. Everything in this ecosystem is connected to each other, with a cause and effect relationship between each little cell, spore, root, string of a web, or what have you.

I also connected on a social level during this volunteer opportunity. Though I usually avoid talking to my classmates because of my social anxiety, it always becomes easier for me to converse when I feel like I’m in my element. It was funny watching my classmates get scared by the wasp nest as we were removing plants from the forest at Bill Baggs. Teasing them about their fear of insects (rightly so at times) and asking them about their fears and phobias out of sheer curiosity. That alone can start a conversation I normally wouldn’t have with someone outside of parks like Bill Baggs or the Deering Estate. You can have human and environmental connections during volunteer opportunities like these.


Originally, our class was planning on doing a second cleanup at Chicken Key, an island just a mile offshore from Deering Estate, however, both weeks that we planned on doing them were cancelled due to strong gusts of wind. So, our professor had us clean up the mangrove forests on the coast of the estate instead. But before we got our hands dirty, our professor asked us to sit down on the ground and to reflect on the times that we had in the class. Each student was asked to name their highlight of the course. Naming just a few highlights was difficult, let alone one since everything about this course was new and amazing for me. Regardless, I named a few that I could remember off the top of my head, like Untitled Art at Art Basel, Jackson Soul Food, and the plane crash in the middle of a mangrove forest. My peers brought up some memories of which I forgot and was happily reminded of. And while this pre-cleanup discussion was going on, several manatees were swimming around in the dock of the Deering Estate! I tried to get video of the manatees interacting with each other and gloriously failed. Once we finished our class discussion, we rolled up our sleeves and headed to the historic mangrove trail, a wooden boardwalk predating the estate itself that unfortunately collapsed due to Hurricane Irma in 2017. With my bag and bare hands, I headed to the area of the mangrove forest closer to the open ocean because I was hoping to see some crocodiles or fish. Most of the trash I collected came in the form of bottles, bottle caps, and sheets. However, I had my mind set on a large crate I saw lodged at the front of the swamp. I nearly lost my water shoes trying to collect that crate, but I managed, and the clue crate became my second bag for other pieces of trash I found (sytrofoam board, road, sheets of plastic, etc.). Trudging back to the swamp, I found a bottle with several mollusks suctioned to the glass. I had never seen that many mollusks at once. I found a small spider, who caught a large fly in its tiny web. Several golden orb weavers were also found in the swamp, and hundreds upon hundreds of mangrove snails bunched up just above the roots, many leaving fresh slime trails. The one fish that I barely saw in the swamp zigzagged through the roots, and I had never seen a fish swim faster in my life. And just for fun, I attempted to walk through the original wooden boardwalk, now a makeshift obstacle course. I survived, finished collecting trash, cleaned myself up a little in the bathrooms, and took a short walk around the estate.



My experiences at Bill Baggs and Deering Estate were ones I deeply enjoyed. I always approach these excursions with a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness. What works for me is mentally preparing myself for what could be the best andthe worst. That way, I never let myself return from these volunteer days feeling angry or annoyed by something. What also worked for me is that I wore the right clothing for these trips, as it made my experience much easier to enjoy.

Author: Gabriella Pena

A marine biology student at FIU who has many interests, including Beyoncé, fashion, Formula One, video games, travel, world culture, languages, etc.

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