People and Community Special Reports

Serving a Community in Need

UM students fan out across South Florida to help local neighborhoods rebound from the impacts of Hurricane Irma.
UM students clear debris at Pinecrest Gardens
UM student clears debris at Pinecrest Gardens

By Michael Malone, Julia D. Berg, Jessica M. Castillo and Alex Bassil

As she looked out over the sprawling grounds of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Sara Soto explained how she had been searching to find a way to volunteer her time to help cleanup after Hurricane Irma.

When the Butler Center for Service and Leadership put out the call for University of Miami students to help South Florida recover, Soto, a junior from Colombia, knew what she would be doing Friday – a special day for her.

“Today is my birthday and I wanted to help out however I could,” said Soto as she picked up debris and spread mulch at the 83-acre site. “This is how I wanted to spend my birthday.”

Soto was joined by more than 250 of her classmates, faculty and UM staff who fanned out at nine locations across South Florida to make a difference and help local communities rebound from Irma. They cleared debris, stocked warehouses with emergency supplies and provided smiles to a community seeking renewal.

Sara Soto
Sara Soto, UM junior from Colombia

“A disaster creates a crisis but also brings out the best of people,” said UM President Julio Frenk, addressing an energized crowd of volunteers assembled at the Rock Plaza at 9 a.m. Friday morning.

“Here at the U, in our solidarity, responsibility, caring for each other, and getting back on track this ‘best’ came out very clearly,” Frenk said.

The president deplored the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma at the U, in the Miami community and in the Caribbean. He mentioned the earthquake in his native Mexico, and noted the “psychological” importance of “getting back to normal.” He praised the extraordinary team effort of the University to help that happen on campus.

“We are not a university in Miami, we are the University of Miami—we belong to this community,” Frenk said, adding: “Today is an opportunity to reconnect with each other and with the community.”

UM mascot Sebastian roused the morning crowd with the ‘Canes cheer, and Adrian Nunez, student government president, offered a special welcome: “Today we move beyond the boundaries of our campus. Today we make an impact.” 

Daniel Watt, a graduate student in higher education, was one of the nine volunteer site leaders. Watt attended the U as an undergrad and said that the volunteer days were one of “my favorite things to do.”

“UM has a role in this community, and we want to show the people that we care. We were all hit by the hurricane and this is about putting in the effort and bringing the whole community back. It’s about showing that UM is going to give you a real helping hand.”

Soto and her friend Scylla Blervacq, a freshman psychology major from Belgium, wanted to do what they could to make a difference. 

“Here there are lots of fallen trees, lots of people needing help, I want to do what I can to help,” said Blervacq, adding that growing up in Belgium she did lots of volunteering.

Volunteers were outfitted with a backpack with water, mosquito repellent and a T-shirt that read “Today is a blank page in your life story, what are you going to write on it?”

The Butler Center for Service and Leadership, along with the Department of Student Life organized Friday’s event with the support of the Office of the President, Division of Student Affairs and the Office of Government and Community Relations. The coordinated effort provided “Irma-specific” relief to eight community partners at nine different sites including Fairchild Tropical Garden, Pinecrest Gardens, the Barnacle Historic State Park, the Chapman Partnership for the Homeless, Miami Rescue Mission, Farm Share, the University’s John C. Gifford Arboretum, and at several county parks especially hard hit by the storm.

“It’s been such an amazing team effort to pull this together so quickly. We saw the need and we really wanted to do something,” said Andrew Wiemer, director of programs at the Butler Center.

At the Barnacle in Coconut Grove, two dozen students received cleanup instructions from the park ranger, who first conveyed the history of the oldest building in Miami, built in 1891. Located on the shore of Biscayne Bay, this was the home of Ralph Middleton Munroe, one of Coconut Grove’s pioneers.

The students hauled seaweed and cleared branches and leaves from the normally immaculate grounds. Two sailboats stood watch on the lawn, washed ashore by the hurricane.

“I just wanted to help out after Irma,” said Paula Da Silva, a freshman from Doral.

At Pinecrest Gardens, students unloaded their bus before getting down to work. Off came water jugs, garden rakes, loppers and shears – the tools for the day.

Despite two weeks of work already, Pinecrest Gardens still faced a massive cleanup from downed banyan trees, heavy tree limbs, palm fronds and small branches. Tall bamboo and heliconia plants crisscross the pathways like pick up sticks.

Horticulturist Harvey Bernstein, education coordinator Lacy Bray, and lead gardeners Glen Hilton, Kristy Albury and Glen Gonzales greeted the students and explained their goal for the day: clear major pathways of fallen debris to help the garden meet its goal of opening some family-friendly areas of the garden to the public on Monday such as the Splish and Splash garden and picnic areas.

The students got right to work, breaking down large limbs and fronds, raking and filling large rolling carts with leaf and branch debris. Volunteer “runners” trolleyed the carts to a huge clean up staging area in the parking lot. Backhoes piled the collected debris as high as possible into a large hill in the parking lot, and the din of wood chippers filled the air as they churned the debris into mulch.

At Fairchild, volunteers helped spruce up the rainforest exhibit and clear debris. Nikki Saylor, a program assistant at Fairchild, said the garden sustained a bit of storm surge, toppled trees and branches and other debris. It could have been worse. The garden hopes to reopen Saturday.

“I saw two hawks yesterday, which is good,” Saylor remarked. “And Ibis. Instinctively, the animals know what to do.”

Megan Howson, a senior from New Jersey, went back home to be with family during the storm.

“I was on the second to last domestic flight out of Miami and it was eerie because, by that point, there was barely anyone there in the airport," she recalled.

Howson and Rachel McCormick, also a senior, said they both have done volunteer service throughout their time at UM. They were pleased when they saw this opportunity to give back.

“I'd been wanting to come back and volunteer since I've been away for two weeks,” said McCormick, who stayed in Dallas during the storm.

“I searched online for different ways to volunteer and help with the recovery efforts, such as through Feeding South Florida, but then I got the Butler Center Service Day emails and saw it was perfect.”