From the Badlands to the bayou, students embrace spring break service projects

March 31, 2011

Spring break: A time for rest and relaxation. And now, volunteerism.

Many undergraduates are redefining this mid-semester respite, opting for hands-on adventures that make a difference in communities across the country and the world. Several environmental studies students took part in public service projects over spring break. Along with a slideshow of photos, we share their stories below in their own words, with our gratitude to those involved and with a nod to all students who volunteer their time and service.

Each of these students is pursuing the Nelson Institute Environmental Studies Certificate.

Electric Lessons

Traveler: Juli Waarvik, senior majoring in Zoology and Biological Aspects of Conservation
Itinerary: Energy efficiency lessons from Energy Service Corps, a joint program of WISPIRG and AmeriCorps. Juli is the UW-Madison Energy Service Corps coordinator.

Juli Waarvik
Juli Waarvik

Juli: Twenty-four AmeriCorps volunteers from across the state took a three-day alternative spring break trip to Green Bay, Milwaukee and Racine to teach young students about saving energy. We spent a day in each city in different elementary schools, averaging about six lessons a day. After three days we taught a total of 2,085 kids!

We had lesson plans tailored to specific grade levels, all of which involved fun, high-energy, hands-on activities. With kindergarteners we played "Electric Charades," where students had to act out electrical appliances and how they got their power. The classrooms were buzzing with "electricity" as students acted out everything from a power plant to the power lines to the toast finally popping out of the toaster. Older students dug for "coal" in chocolate chip cookies to emphasize the permanent and damaging effects mining has on the Earth.

Students responded extremely well and walked away with information on how they could conserve energy and make a difference in their community. We now have more than 2,000 kids in Wisconsin acting as energy detectives in their homes and helping to spread the positive message about saving money, saving energy and saving the environment.


Protecting and Connecting with the Wild

Travelers: Chad Zirbel, junior majoring in Biological Aspects of Conservation and Physical Geography, and Polly Boland, senior majoring in History (certificate students Hannah Manninen and Emily Veserat also took part)
Itinerary: Quest trip to the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks organized by The Crossing, a UW-Madison campus ministry. Travis Tennessen, a Ph.D. student in Geography and a graduate affiliate of the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History and Environment, is a Quest program coordinator and helped plan the trip.

Quest tripEnvironmental Studies Certificate students pictured are, in the back row, Chad Zirbel (far left), Emily Veserat (second from left) and Hannah Manninen (second from right); in the front row, Polly Boland (second from right).

Chad: After a brief warning about the innumerable fire ant mounds, old 40-foot-deep wells previously used for irrigation, two poisonous plants and four venomous snake species we may encounter, our group headed out armed with hedge clippers and spray bottles of herbicide.

We worked on the "Hole in the Donut" restoration project at Everglades National Park. This area encompasses 6,250 acres that were originally used for farmland until it was abandoned and sold to the park in 1975. As the land sat unused and plants were allowed to re-colonize, an invasive species, Brazilian Pepper, quickly outcompeted many of the native plant species. It has made the habitat less suitable for many of the organisms that call the Everglades home.

In two days, our group of ten, and the four park employees guiding us, were able to cover just ten acres. This made the idea of restoring the entire area seem almost impossible. The realization that complete eradication of Brazilian Pepper from the park is impractical was slightly disheartening. One of the most surprising aspects of the trip was the gratefulness of the staff we worked for, even though we had only made a dent in the workload. Although it wasn't much, our work was valuable.

I was able to take part in a large scale restoration project while seeing dozens of alligators, numerous birds, a multitude of other wildlife and one of the most breathtaking sunsets. This was an experience I will truly never forget, with a group of complete strangers that are now friends.

Great blue heron EvergladesGreat blue heron in Everglades National Park. Photo credit Chad Zirbel.

Polly: After working in the Everglades for two days, we took a one-day hiatus, relaxing on the beaches of Long Key State Park and snorkeling at a reef off of Key Largo. This let us focus on the relaxation part of spring break, which was very much welcome! On Thursday and Friday, however, we were back to work, this time at Biscayne National Park.

Biscayne is mainly a marine park, so our work day included a nearly hour-long boat ride through the Florida Keys, both to and from our work site. This was definitely the favorite part of the day for most, probably because it was something we would not have been able to do on our own, or for free!

Our volunteer work at Biscayne consisted of picking up trash from the beaches of Elliot Key. Elliot Key is in direct line with the Gulf Stream, meaning trash from the open ocean continuously washes up on its shores. Elliot Key is also where many sea turtles come to lay their eggs each spring. Unfortunately, some turtles have been incapable of laying their eggs on these beaches due to the amount of stress the trash can induce. So it was our job to aid in the reproduction of this threatened species.

The time at Biscayne felt valuable, but also slightly depressing. It is disheartening to see such a large amount of trash in such a beautiful and fragile ecosystem, and also know that a couple of months from now, more trash will wash ashore.

We understood our part may be and feel small in respect to the numerous problems these parks face. Regardless, our role was to do whatever we could with the time we had, and we felt lucky to be in a gorgeous environment, working and learning together, and having a wonderful time throughout the journey.


Rebuilding New Orleans

Traveler: Laura Martinelli, sophomore majoring in Wildlife Ecology and Spanish
Itinerary: Alternative break to New Orleans, Louisiana, organized by UW-Madison student organization Badger Catholic

Laura MartinelliLaura Martinelli, far left.

Laura: Quickly after arriving in the city and experiencing some of the lively culture, I realized that New Orleans still had so much that needed fixing. I was shocked to discover that six years after Hurricane Katrina, some buildings and many more houses remain untouched, in a disheveled state.

We were able to help rebuild the city by cleaning up houses, mowing lawns and handing out food at a local food bank. It was exhausting work, both physically and emotionally. Most days were spent in the glaring, hot sun, moving broken wood and debris or intensely trimming overgrown and forgotten yards. We also heard the heart-wrenching stories of the local people who survived the storm. The majority of them were still in the midst of piecing their lives back together.

The exhaustion that I felt, however, was nothing compared to the overwhelming joy that came from knowing I was able to help those in need. There is something to be said about getting down on your hands and knees and cleaning out of love for your fellow people. I may not have been living it up on the beach every day, but I know I got the greatest satisfaction of all through helping those of New Orleans.

While there is still so much to be done, each small act or short week of work contributes to the eventual goal of restoration. I was able to make an impact and I would not give that up for anything. What more could you want out of a spring break?


Help for the Gulf Coast

Travelers: Michelle Okerstrom, sophomore in pre-nursing, and Jordan Chacon, freshman majoring in Spanish and Community and Environmental Sociology
Itinerary: HandsOn Mississippi, a Wisconsin Union Directorate Alternative Break to Gulfport, Mississippi

Michelle OkerstromMichelle Okerstrom, at left.

Michelle: We worked on a different project every day. On Monday we helped organize and market upcoming activities at a local teen youth center, then cleaned up the warehouse that houses many of the activities. On our second day, the group was assigned to help fix a house that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

On Wednesday we put together signs to warn visitors of nesting birds on the Barrier Islands and cleaned paths. On Thursday we volunteered at an animal shelter. With more than 40 dogs and two employees, the shelter needed our help and we gave it with pleasure.

On our last work day, we lent our hands to trail clearing at a local research refuge. The path being cleared would be used by future researchers and scientists hoping to measure sediment levels in the ground. We lopped away at branches and cleared debris to form a distinct walkway. In these dense woods, we could still see the destruction of Katrina. A wooden stairway and a lone dock sat conspicuously in the open fields. By then, it was clear that every aspect of our volunteer work was either directly or indirectly related to the hurricane.

On our free day we took a trip to New Orleans. This eclectic city, rightly famous for its Mardi Gras festivities and jazz music, easily lived up to our expectations. We strolled through the European-looking streets of the French Quarter, devoured the world-famous beignets at Cafe du Monde and swayed to the sounds of the always audible saxophone players. Mardi Gras beads hung proudly at every turn and local artists displayed their talents on sidewalks. For dinner, we treated ourselves to some local favorites like jambalaya and walked along the shore of the Mississippi River. It was so great to experience the different culture, atmosphere, and weather of the south.

Jordan ChaconJordan Chacon

Jordan: Being the big foodie and traveler that I am, the highlights of my trip were going to very new and different places around this area of the South and eating the delicious food. But even more than those moments were the incredible gifts of appreciation and thanks given to us daily by the locals who overwhelmingly valued our help.

The greatest feeling in the world was when a father thanked us for volunteering, for his house and many other houses couldn't be rebuilt without the work of volunteers, and when a woman at the animal shelter told us that everything we did that day to help them was so incredibly appreciated and worthwhile for the animals. I had an amazing and heart-lifting experience that I would do over and over again.


Taking in a National Treasure

Traveler: Kelly Sykora, senior majoring in People-Environment Geography
Itinerary: Wisconsin Union Directorate Alternative Break to Yosemite National Park. Kelly planned this trip for the Alternative Breaks committee.

Kelly: Our biggest project was repairing and repainting the life-sized sign warning against bears breaking into cars for even just the scent of previously eaten food or gum or toothpaste left within. It was cool to think about how our project would be there for visitors to take pictures with and would hopefully keep at least a few doors intact that may have otherwise had to face the targeted power of the black bear.

We also got to explore a few trails while picking up trash, in several places for the first time since the major thaw. One day we did some spring cleaning in the museum and explored the back room and vault where they keep about a twelfth of the entire collection of paintings, baskets, local animals, and much more.

Kelly SykoraKelly Sykora

The best part was being surrounded by the magnificent beauty of the valley. I could understand why older cultures would worship the grand forces of nature as gods. They are the ultimate and powerful creators of the sheer rock faces and interesting shapes that provide most of the viewing highlights in the valley portion of the park. It was a perfect trip to get away from the norm, breathe, and contribute a little to the facilitation of similar experiences for countless people throughout the coming summer season.