SCA alumna Emily Williams (Kenai, '08) sent us this account of her MLK Day experience. Thanks, Emily!
After listening to lectures, filling pipettes in labs, and sitting in classrooms all day, the members of the FAB Environmental Sustainability trip were ready and raring to go get their hands dirty and spend some quality time in the outdoors. On Friday, January 16th, 14 students of the University of Florida in Gainesville piled into two vans and made the two-hour drive to Orlando to volunteer their time and efforts over MLK weekend.
Florida Alternative Breaks, better known as FAB, is a student-run, non-profit organization that brings active students together in the name of service, leadership, and social change. Rather than visit the bars or take a cruise down to Cancun over Spring break, volunteers of FAB choose an alternative break, immersing themselves in a particular social issue. FAB offers weekend, winter and Spring break trips, focused around HIV/AIDS awareness, poverty/homelessness, environmentalism, LGBTQ, and countless other issues. These trips travel in state, throughout the Southeast and even internationally; every year, trips travel all the way to New Orleans and Mississippi to provide disaster relief to residents that had suffered the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.
Being centered on environmental preservation and sustainability, our FAB group wanted to volunteer with a conservation-based organization. Prior to our trip, members volunteered for the Watershed Action Volunteers (WAV) of Alachua County, in helping protect and conserve the St. Johns watershed. During this day event, members of the Environmental FAB group traveled to specific sites around Gainesville, sticking “No dumping!” decals on storm drains.
Bright and early on Saturday morning, we drove to the heart of the Simple Living Institute to help and learn more about organic farming. The Simple Living Institute, a non-profit that advocates personal health and conservation through a sustainable self-sufficient lifestyle, started with Tia Meer, founder and president of the organization. That morning, we met at Tia’s house – a log cabin balanced on stilts, surrounded in Florida pine and cypress forest. Through a land use agreement with the Institute, Tia and her husband Terry manage their own farm - a self-sufficient biointensive mini-farm comfortably situated on a five-acre lot. This plot of land includes numerous rain-collecting barrels, solar panels, and other green alternatives that lead to a simpler, less-consuming lifestyle.
At this site, laden with drills, machetes, clippers, saws, and watering cans, all members set to work to create seed boxes, create trails, and tend to the gardens. Throughout the Econ Farm, Tia and Terry, along with various volunteers, created trails that meander throughout the marshy woodland ecosystem. One trail had gotten completely overgrown with thorny blackberry and other annoyingly sharp shrubs. Our job was to completely clear the area, so that it was walkable once more. In addition to crazily hacking away at vegetation with a vengeance, we spent a good majority of our time releasing our anger on invasive plant species that were choking out the surrounding natives. Meanwhile, other members were watering the abundant vegetables the Meers grow in their garden; tasty legumes like broccoli, carrots, snow peas and potatoes. The Meers also maintain their very own compost pile, composed almost entirely of their organic waste. Some FABers truly got their hands dirty - sifting the clumps of trash from the decomposing stuff, coating their fingers in a thick layer of black goo in the process. Once we had spent a good five hours toiling away in balmy 75-degree Florida winter weather, we took off our gloves, brushed off our jeans, and headed home.
The next day was spent on the Econlockhatchee River. Flowing through a mesh of oaks, cypress, and palms, this blackwater tributary runs 63 miles north up to the St. Johns River and is home to a myriad of slider turtles, alligators, gar, deer, and other abundant wildlife. Our job (if one could even label it as that) was to go canoeing…and remove pollution in the process. Equipped with paddles, big trash bags, and copious amounts of water, we piled three to a canoe and paddled down the river. The range of experience levels in controlling a canoe was extremely diverse – which led to many funny moments of accidentally getting landed, running into fallen trees, and getting smacked in the face by rather large palm fronds. Although the hardships were relentless, the FAB Environmental Sustainability group prevailed. At the end of the four-hour long trip, we managed to fill 14 trash bags full of unmitigated garbage.
While coasting the “Econ” waterway, we happened across a rope that was dangling from a hardy live oak. Being the resourceful FAB members that we are, we put two and two together, and used the rope for its intended purpose. That being said, only two of us braved the arctic waters of the Econ deep and plunged into its icy depths. Surfacing in a matter of seconds and realizing that it was cold, we could at least own bragging rights for the rest of the trip.
The final day of our trip was spent at the Chelonian Research Institute in Oviedo. Founded by Dr. Peter Pritchard, the institute promotes the research and conservation of turtles and tortoises throughout the world. The center can boast that it possesses the world’s third largest turtle and tortoise museum collection of specimens. This 10-acre site is home to a number of Galapagos tortoises, Redfoot tortoises, various sliders, and snapping turtles. Although all of this was very educational and all of the FAB members would vouch for my statement in saying that we could have spent all day feeding the tortoises and turtles, we came with a purpose. Similar to the farm we worked at the Simple Living Institute, the Chelonian Research Center was likewise plagued by invasive plant species. For four hours, we hacked and severed, tugged and heaved out all of the air potato, cogon grass, Japanese climbing fern, and Brazilian pepper we could lay our dirty little fingers on. At the end of the day, our fingers and hands were sliced and bleeding, but we could at least be proud that we had made a difference – and at least, given a bit more sunlight to the critters that really needed it.
By 7 pm Monday evening, all 14 FAB members fell out of the vans at the UF commuter lot, ready to get some much-needed rest, but sad to leave the fast-friendships made (and definitely not ready to start class at 8:30 in the morning!). This MLK weekend was full of service, good times, and spending special moments outside in helping conserve and sustain the environment. MLK 2009 was one for the history books – and I’m proud to say I was a part of it!