Eleven Harford Community College students and two Office of Student Life employees spent part of their winter break in service learning activities January 5-12 in the Florida Keys. Students Kenneth Bracken (Engineering), Kira Canter (Biology/Psychology), Maddy Clark (Environmental Science), Erika Dickey (Psychology), Amy Hyman (Psychology), Courtney Insley (General Studies), Grace Pangratz (Business Administration), Jaclyn Purvis (General Studies), Sydnie Stern (AAT-Early Childhood Education/Special Education), Robert Sunderhaus (Business Administration), and Krista Wilcox (Communication Studies) joined chaperones Caitlin White, HCC Student Leadership and Orientation Specialist, and Laura Burke, HCC Student Wellness and Programming Specialist.

The original Keys study program plans had to be revised due to the partial government shutdown. According to Caitlin White, “Almost all of the work we did with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was changed because of the shutdown.” For example, the HCC team had planned an overnight trip to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park. The students were supposed to work with the park staff and researchers there to do marine debris clean up in some of the remote areas of the islands that the park needed help maintaining. The trip to the Dry Tortugas was cancelled when the U.S. Department of the Interior ended camping at the fort. Fortunately, several state and nonprofit partners stepped in and coordinated activities for the students.

“I am so thankful that so many people volunteered to help us when our plans got cancelled at the last minute. Everyone we worked with was so friendly and encouraging! I loved being able to work hands-on with different aspects of the marine environment, and I learned so much from everyone who was willing to take the time to teach us and show us how we could help,” said student Krista Wilcox.

During their stay, the HCC team provided valuable assistance to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (part of the National Marine Sanctuary Conservation Commission) who partnered the HCC team with Mote Marine Laboratory, Florida Boy Scouts, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The students spent Sunday in the classroom at the Mote Marine Laboratory’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration on Summerland Key. They toured the Mote research facilities, attended presentations, and learned about the impact of marine debris on coral reef health.

On Monday, they performed marine debris cleanup at a remote location on Sugarloaf Key. This area does not get cleaned regularly; two pickup trucks were filled with debris that included rope, plastic, boat parts and more, left over from Hurricane Irma.

The next day they worked with Mote on coral restoration, rotating between cleaning coral tanks and performing microfragmentation of coral, a technique that cuts coral into small pieces to accelerate growth for reef restoration. The sections grow quickly and can be replanted in dead areas of the reef; they grow back together much quicker than they would have without intervention. The team made approximately 500 new plugs that will take about four months to regrow.

On Wednesday they worked with the Florida Boy Scouts at the Brinton Environmental Center, removing more than 600 pounds of debris. That afternoon, the Boy Scouts lent the team their kayaks and paddleboards to explore the mangroves and snorkel.

Students had the next day off to explore Key West. Many chose to visit the Southernmost Point Buoy that marks the southernmost point in the continental U.S., the Earnest Hemingway Home and Museum, the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, and the Key West Lighthouse. That evening, Fury Watersports provided the students with a complimentary sunset cruise to reward them for their hard work.

On Friday, the team volunteered with Habitat for Humanity on Big Pine Key, painting stairs and railings for homes that had been recently constructed by Habitat.

Students found the experience to be rewarding and fun. “I am very appreciative of the way the organizations came together for us and made this week a huge success! We got truckloads of debris out of the waters and had tons of fun learning about coral restoration, cleaning the corals and getting a chance to frag our own coral as a group. I will always be grateful to have had this experience and plan on coming back to help more in the future,” stated Erika Dickey.

Amy Hyman added, “I think it’s really amazing that there are people down here who dedicate all of their time and energy to protecting and conserving the marine environment. It’s a completely selfless act, and I’m truly grateful we had the opportunity to do a lot of hands-on work. In just a few short days I learned so much about marine debris, corals and ways to really make a difference on this earth. I’ll not only continue to utilize this knowledge going forward, but now I’m able to share what I learned with my friends and family and start to see good changes in the way we live and treat this planet.”

The mission of the Alternative Break program at Harford Community College is to provide direct service opportunities for students to experience diverse perspectives, learn about social issues, and grow as lifelong active citizens.