With Spring Break now underway for high school and college students across the country, area beaches are seeing an influx of visitors. But, it’s not all sun and fun.
A large group of "alternative spring breakers" recently visited the region to help Pensacola Habitat for Humanity complete a number of beautification projects in the city’s Westside Garden District.
The students were from the national non-profit Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF), based in Minnesota. As part of their Pay It Forward Tour, a total of 230 of them traveled to Pensacola by bus from chapters at Michigan State University and Minnesota State University, Mankato.
“Two-hundred-thirty is a lot of volunteers, so we wanted to pick an area that it was condensed enough, you could make an impact,” said John Potrzeba, neighborhood outreach coordinator for Habitat’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program, in reference to the decision to put the students to work in the large Westside Garden District, which runs north from Garden St. to Cervantes St. and west from A St. to Pace Blvd.
“Being that it’s about 112 city blocks, the Westside Garden District, we felt it was a good size to suit this group and that they would leave the day having made a significant impact on this community.”
The volunteer event was presented in partnership with Keep Pensacola Beautiful, the Westside Garden District Neighborhood Association, and the City of Pensacola. It encompassed a wide array of activities throughout the area, including lawn maintenance at the homes of elderly and disabled homeowners, and right-of-way and vacant lot cleanup in the community.
A handful of the students spent their time establishing a butterfly garden at the Theophalis May Resource Center.
“Let’s take gaillardia, this is a native here and somebody said they see this up in the Dakotas and Minnesota,” said environmentalist and green building consultant Christian Wagley as he showed the students one of the native nectar plants they would be adding to the landscape bed.
Wagley volunteered at the butterfly garden to provide a little instruction and guidance to ensure the planting will be done right.
“The landscape was a little sparse, and there’s a lot of interest now in plantings for butterflies” Wagley said. “We know the butterflies are majorly in decline. And, so this is one simple little thing we can do to add habitat for butterflies and actually in a very prominent place at the front of the building where lots of people, families, children, are gonna see it and experience it.”
Assisting with the butterfly garden were Thelma Adjidjonu and Jessica Gagakuma, who are students from Minnesota State, Mankato.
“We’re here with Students Today Leaders Forever. And, we’re just like helping with volunteer work. We want to just like help with communities, want to help them in anything that they need help with, we practically physically help them with,” they said.
Adjidjonu and Gagakuma, who both have roots in Ghana, West Africa, attend Minnesota State. Pensacola was the last working stop of the week for them, with earlier workdays in Missouri, Arkansas, New Orleans and Tennessee. In addition to planting a butterfly garden, they say they’ve done just about everything from cleaning, sorting and painting at a thrift store to cleanup and mulch replacement at a playground.
“I think that the people we’ve actually encountered, they’ve been really appreciative of our work,” said Gagakuma. “They have questions as in where we’re from, why we’re here, what really made us choose the volunteer work that we’re doing; because, we had different buses to go to, different places to go to. But, there’s something that calls us to be on this specific place.”
“Well they’re all so grateful and so positive, too,” added Alexa Magsoudi, a Michigan State student.
“That’s so inspiring for us as students to continue this and to know that we can make a difference even if we work just one day for a couple of hours. But, the impact and the personal perspective they have is just really very humbling and amazing.”
Magsoudi and fellow Spartans Adithya Bala and Rachel Yu were part of a team making good use of their cellphones on a headstone photographic archiving project at the nearby historic St. John’s Cemetery.
“It’s great for research and it’s great for the families who might want to look into their history a little bit,” said Bala of the new digital archive of the expansive cemetery, which was established in 1876 and is still in use today.
“We’ve seen several [tombstones], some that are kind of sad, like families together, young children who passed away, like babies, some interesting quotes. We saw one person who lived over 100 years old, which is crazy because back in the 1800s that’s pretty rare,” they added.
As the students photographed the headstones, a work crew was taking care of regular lawn maintenance at the cemetery. Nearby, a team was putting a fresh paint job on several little free libraries to be placed throughout the Westside Garden District.
Habitat for Humanity’s Jon Potrzeba says the students are leaving a freshly revitalized and more beautified community, which is in line with their mission.
And, with more than 200 on the job, they were able to make a big difference in just one day.
“I mean it’s invaluable,” said Potrzeba. “I can’t even tell you how long it would take us to do this with 10-15 volunteers at a time. We’d be doing this all summer.”
Video credit: Jonathon Heide, WUWF.