It’s Outdoor Stewardship Week – part of Great Outdoors Month – and at Volunteer Florida, we’re recognizing the AmeriCorps programs in our state that #ServeOutdoors and help protect the environment.

Under Project A.N.T. (AmeriCorps Non-Native Plant Terminators), the Florida Conservation Corps AmeriCorps members focus on invasive exotic plant management and trail improvements in Florida state parks. Spending a majority of their time outdoors, members treat and survey invasive exotic plants, while performing trail improvements and assessments. Members also educate park visitors and the local community about the damaging effects of invasive exotic plants on Florida’s unique ecosystems.

Samantha Roberts-Swartz currently serves with the Florida Conservation Corps at Crystal River Preserve State Park. We asked her a few questions about her AmeriCorps experience.

Why do you enjoy serving outdoors?

Every day that I get to serve outdoors is like another adventure. It is challenging work, but it is some of the most rewarding work that I have ever had the pleasure of doing. I often wade through the mud and wet lands to get to areas that very few people have ever been able to see and smell the flowers that no one else will ever know exist. I go home covered in mud and sweat, but I can turn around and see the positive impact that I have made on the environment.

What have you learned from serving outdoors?

I have learned so many different things while serving outdoors. I would say that one of the most important things that I have learned is never to give up. I have started tasks that seem daunting, like I could never finish them, and I have even failed. Then I worked hard, tried again and ultimately succeeded, often surpassing my expectations. One person that is willing to keep trying can make a world of difference.

How can others serve outdoors and/ or help protect the environment?

There are endless opportunities to serve outdoors and help protect the environment. One of the most important things that can be done is education – self-education and sharing that knowledge by educating others. Know your impact. Once you know your impact, you can start finding ways to mitigate your effects on the environment. Even something as small as using reusable bags at the store or not using plastic straws. Continue to add on small things, like walking short distances instead of driving. Eventually all these little actions will add up to something big.

Serving outside is as simple as going to your local park and asking them about their volunteer opportunities. If you are looking for something more long term, check out Project A.N.T. (AmeriCorps Non-Native Plant Terminators). You can spend 11 wonderful months working within a State Park, assisting in the management of invasive exotic plants, improving trails and recruiting volunteers to serve in our parks.

Northwest Florida Environmental Stewards – established within Northwest Florida State College, in partnership with Okaloosa and Walton County schools and the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) –  utilizes AmeriCorps members to administer “Grasses in Classes” STEM curriculum in local elementary schools, reaching approximately 2,000 third and fifth grade students every month. Targeting areas within the Choctawhatchee watershed, the members also help restore, maintain and develop land and natural resources, including shorelines, coastal dunes and oyster beds.

Here’s what they, their AmeriCorps Program Director, Laurie Von Kaenel, and fellow staff members had to say about serving outdoors.

Why do you enjoy serving outdoors?

One of the most enjoyable parts of serving outdoors is going back afterwards and witnessing the progress. After we work on reefs, they begin to teem with life. For example, when oysters grow on reefs that we just built, they filter the water, and then crabs and fish use the area as a habitat, proving the impact that our service has on the health of the local estuary.  It is inspiring and really reminds us why do this.

What have you learned from serving outdoors?

We learn something new every day. Some days, it is more scientific (like a fact about wildlife or plant life), and other days it is a more “big picture” knowledge. Some of the most important things we have learned include:

  • People really do care – whether it is a volunteer dedicating their time to a project or a person who sees us working and asks us about what we are doing.
  • A small amount of people can make a big difference. Even when there are only a few of us and it feels like we are getting nowhere, we are always surprised by what we accomplish when we stay on task and work together.

How can others serve outdoors and/ or help protect the environment?

Restoration is crucial, but with any kind of project, education needs to come first. The most rewarding part of educating kids is seeing them put what they learned in the classroom to use in the community. We have taught more than 12,000 students, each leaving with a sense of personal responsibility to protect the environment and the knowledge of how to do it. We often see previous students out and about – they approach us in stores or at the park wanting to talk about what they learned, sometimes months after we taught them. You cannot make it stick with everyone, but seeing those kids remain excited, even outside of the classroom, has us believing that they will go on to remember our work and become environmental stewards themselves.

To learn more about Outdoor Stewardship Week, Great Outdoors Month and how to serve outside and protect the environment, please click here.