Eighteen students from the University of Georgia decided to forgo the traditional Spring Break party vacation in Southwest Florida to focus on a more community service-based week off.
The out-of-state volunteers are involved with Impact, a program that is substance-free, affordable and equal opportunity. The group, led by two co-site leaders, drove two vans down to Lee County from Athens to work five eight-hour days at different sites in the area.
The newly named program, which used to be called Alternative Spring Break, has been a focus locally for two years and aided in the facilitation process by Lee County Parks & Recreation.
"They selected Lee County last year and had such a successful time working with us for the 40 hours that we welcomed them back with open arms," said Vicki Little, senior programmer for Lee Parks (ck/////title). "It's a well-structured program. Each outreach group has a focus - whether it is Habitat for Humanity or working with youth groups."
Little said the group this year is helping with the removal of exotic vegetation, cleaning trails and a variety of land stewardship services. On Friday, the group was supplied County-owned kayaks to performed waterway maintenance on a mangrove trail that circumnavigates Plover Island (near Bunche Beach) by clearing out mangrove branches or other debris that have fallen or needs to be cleaned up for access.
"We're clearing some of the beautiful mangrove pathways so that our visitors can paddle through," she said.
The Georgia students spent their early week work days cleaning up ground litter, debris and removing exotics at Hickey's Creek Mitigation on Monday, Matanzas Pass Preserve on Tuesday under the helm of Jim Rodwell, San Carlos Island Maritime Park on Wednesday and Six-Mile Cypress Slough on Thursday.
"We have had groups of students sign up for these outreach programs and do community service at various locations where they go out and try to make an impact in the area," said Cameron Prybol, one of the area co-site leaders. "We set it up as a traditional 40-hour-a-week work week. The main focus of the trip is service. We don't want to come down here and just have fun. We want to be able to serve the community as much as we can."
Georgia had 20 trips planned this year, four of them in Florida.
"The entire thing is started and run by students," said Prybol, who is in his second year in the program. "It's been a great experience. It's so rewarding because you actually get to do work. All of your parks around here are complete gems."
The entire program is based on a lottery system. While site leaders apply for the position, everyone else needs to sign up. There is no ranking, and it's completely random, says Prybol.
"We try to make it affordable. It's $175 for the entire week, and that includes everything," he said. "A lot of what the students get is donation-based, including food and shelter."
The Georgia students stayed in a local church in sleeping bags. Lee parks supplied the equipment and the training for work. On Friday, the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau supplied lunch.
This particular spring break mentality is worthy for the environmentally conscious and those who are looking to build their resume through community service.
Prybol, a Biochemestry major with an emphasis in environmental issues and research, sees the opportunity in such a working vacation.
"Instead of just going out on the beach with a bunch of friends and a case of beer, you actually get to experience things that you would never have the opportunity to do in any other time of the year, especially during your education," he said.
Ginny Leviton, the other co-site leader, is on her third year in the program. She is an Environmental Health major who has also done environmental research recently in Maryland.
"I love service. This is kind of what I am heading towards in the future and with helping people," she said.