Alternative Spring Break: A firsthand account

I’ve just returned from a week-long Alternative Spring Break service project in the Florida Everglades, where I volunteered alongside a group of amazing Northeastern students as they worked hard throughout the week to make a visible and immediate impact on the environment. Throughout this experience, I watched the students form strong bonds not only through their volunteer work but also over riddles, games, and pancake breakfasts at our hostel. Here is a glimpse at our weeklong experience.  

The environmental problems facing the Florida Everglades can’t be solved overnight, but a group of 11 Northeastern University students made an impact over the course of their week there.

Through Northeastern’s Alternative Spring Break program, the students worked in Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park in Florida, removing invasive species and restoring beach habitat for sea turtle nesting.

The environmental challenges in the Everglades range from ocean currents carrying trash into Elliot Key to invasive plants latching on in areas inhabited by humans. Maintenance work by volunteers and humanitarians plays a large role in keeping these problems at bay. Though they surely can’t be solved during one week’s worth of volunteering, the students’ work made a big impact, said Kevin Bowles Mohr, a volunteer coordinator at Everglades National Park, who noted this time of year is the busiest for both tourism and volunteering.

[caption id="attachment_21846" align="alignright" width="350"] Third-year students Claire Penney (left) and Maggie Poyant remove invasive plants in the Florida Everglades.[/caption]

Throughout the week, the student volunteers had no problem getting their hands dirty. For instance, removing Syngonium—a viney, invasive plant originally from Central and South America—required more than just ripping off visible leaves; the roots must also be thoroughly pulled from the ground. To get a sense of how important their work would be, students were shown areas of the park where Syngonium has been removed last year and now flourished with new, native vegetation.

“It really opened my eyes to the problems that happening all over the world, and this [work] cemented my belief that I’m going into a field that helps me improve the environment,” said first-year student Emily Bott.

Elsewhere, on Elliott Key in Biscayne National Park, students cleared the beaches and surrounding areas of trash that had washed ashore—in this case, garbage had washed more inland than normal because of superstorm Sandy. In the blistering sun, students filled more than 60 large bags with trash and waded through deep water to carry them and other debris above their heads and off the island.

Yet that effort was only one part of the trash removal process. Upon turning the corner toward another section of the island, students faced yet another trash-riddled landscape.

For student co-leader Lindsay Weigel, the group’s cleanup efforts in Biscayne put her childhood memories from prior park visits in very different perspective. “As a kid, I never realized how much pollution affected the environment and how entangled all the nature can become in trash,” she said. “But I also learned here how impactful it be to cut away the fishing lines around roots and restore the area to the beautiful, aqua-blue water scene you picture when you think of the Keys."

[caption id="attachment_21850" align="alignright" width="350"] Student co-leader Lindsay Weigel removes trash in Elliott Key in Bis­cayne National Park.[/caption]

During nightly reflection exercises throughout the week, many other students echoed Weigel’s sentiments. In fact, most of them are studying environmental science at Northeastern and found incredible value in seeing  how much the experience could positively impact their own lives, education, and career paths.

In particular, students expressed an understanding for how even small choices people make on a daily basis can have major effects on an area’s ecosystem.

For one volunteer—first-year student Maddie Seibert—collecting trash at Elliott Key on the first day of the trip caused an immediate change in behavior. “I’m never using another paper plate at the hostel again,” she exclaimed.