ORLANDO | With its long coastline and internal landscapes of grasslands, lakes, hammocks and riverbeds, Florida’s environmental conservation efforts are both essential and urgent. It’s no wonder that Catholic students across the state display amazing achievements in extracurricular activities to practice their faith as they care for creation.
This January marks the introduction of a new decade and with it, thankfully, are the same Christian values upheld by Florida’s schools to conserve the state’s landscape. The future will look brighter each year because of strict persistence by two schools to ensure their community’s environment stays clean. The Florida Catholic wanted to highlight how Catholic schools are working to help the environment.
For the third consecutive year, Melbourne Central Catholic High School has partnered up with the Brevard Zoo to assist in the “Restore Our Shores” program. The project, spearheaded by Dan Ensell, director of Campus Ministry, enjoys helping the environment while seeing his students do the same.
“The students are more entuned to the environmental things (then years prior),” Ensell said, who has been serving the community this way for nine years. “They will inherit the planet long after we are gone.”
The program tends to attract an overload of students eagerly wanting to help. “Out of all of our retreats in our experiences, this one seems to fill up quickly,” Ensell said. “The students want to get involved with this. They are seeing the poor decisions we have made with the environment.”
Jeremy Benzler, a junior in the Melbourne project and Ensell’s right-hand, supports the Shores cleanup by handcrafting numerous crates made from wire that will contain mollusks to assist in cleaning. These shelled creatures play an intricate part in the purifying of the lagoon water.
“I made oyster baskets to help filter out the pollutants, thereby preserving the coastal environment,” Jeremy said, who hopes to become a commercial pilot.
Ensell added, “Through the making of oyster mats, they attach oysters to these cages that students make at the zoo and put them into the lagoon. Each oyster can filter out 50 gallons of water a day. Pretty impressive.”
On the east coast of Florida, the 156-mile Indian River Lagoon is a combination of the Indian River itself, the Banana River, and the Mosquito Lagoon. The lagoon boasts as a major preserve of more than 4,000 various plants and animals and consists of several state parks and wildlife safe havens. It’s presence as a major beacon for life is the primary reason it draws attention from Melbourne Catholic.
Ensell and his team of devoted teens take pride in providing a safe environment for their community. The lagoon has become contaminated from an unexpected method that many people might not even realize: lawn care.
“The different toxins that people put in their lawns eventually wash into the Indian River lagoon and over time it pollutes the water,” Ensell said of the likely cause. “Fertilizers and things that keep the grass green all year round — when it rains, they all wash out and eventually find their ways into the waterways.” This causes “the algae blooms that we have been seeing in Florida —a lot of that has been caused by chemicals we have on our lawns. The algae blooms have also been responsible for a lot of fish (deaths). It is suffering pretty bad now.”
Jeremy suggested simple precautions members of the community can take to prevent further harm to the lagoon.
“You can help by picking up after your pets because dog waste carries bacteria that sickens the lagoon,” he said. “You can even wash your car where the soap and dirt water don’t flow into the street drain, thus contaminating the lagoon.”
Keeping the Everglades Sacred
South of Melbourne and within the Diocese of Palm Beach, students and teachers of Sacred Heart are doing their parts to honor what God has given them by cleaning another massive biological preserve, the Everglades.
The tropical swamplands that encompass much of the southern region of Florida is, like the Indian River Lagoon, another distinct portion of the planet that provides a special bionetwork of plants and animals.
As beautiful and precious as the Everglades are to the Florida ecosystem, it is highly vulnerable to manmade issues, such as the land occupation from housing developments and the subsequent litter it accumulates as a result.
Wyatt Petrie, a student at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Lake Worth, who helps with the eradication of trash, takes his involvement in the preservation very seriously. “The Everglades are kind of sad because some of it got destroyed,” he said. “People built houses (on the land) and they throw a lot of garbage on the beach.”
Littering and the presence of humans as a nonremovable force has been a constant problem throughout the years in the Everglades. Acts have been created to cure the problem. In 2000, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) took effect from Congress with little effect. Lack of monies and disregard from Florida’s political representatives have continued to enhance, rather than alleviate, the issue. As a result, Florida’s fishing industry has suffered a loss of $9.3 billion and more than 100,000 jobs in the fishing industry have been eliminated.
Jessica Lowell, another concerned student at Sacred Heart, is worried for animal life in the Everglades. “We also help the environment and the turtles from where their nest is made,” she said. “The turtles eat garbage bags because they think they are jellyfish.”
The leader of the project, Elizabeth White of Sacred Heart Catholic School, coordinates trips to the Everglades and conducts the beach cleanups. An all-day photography excursion to the Arthur Marshall Wildlife Refuge in early November provided the students with a wealth of information as they walked the trails. The students were encouraged to take photos of the various trees, insects, plants, and animals, appreciating all forms of God’s creation at the Everglades.
“I am very impressed with the students,” White said of the students who discussed methods with the tour guides to save the Everglades from any further damage. “They were eager to learn more about the environment here in Florida and really getting involved in helping their community.”
As helpful as social media can be to garner attention for these social justice issues, it can also steer people away from performing helpful actions.
“Most kids are too busy playing on their phones, doing Snapchat and doing video calls,” she said of her fellow youths. “We are also the hope that we can stop pollution and the Everglades from being destroyed.”
Jessica was critical of adults, as well. “If adults put down their phones for a couple of minutes and go to the beach and pick up some trash,” she said, “that could really help a lot of people in the environment.”
“The more people who become aware of the issue,” Wyatt said, “the better chance we have of fixing it.”
Awareness is key for White.
“Some kids in this generation are becoming more aware of the issues, especially living on the coast and so close to the Everglades,” she said. “Exposing them to the dangers of pollution — more than just littering — but letting them know about agricultural solutions and other things that are going on in the neighborhoods that can help impact the ecosystem here so that they know what kind of world will be left behind for them and their children and their children’s children.”
Students of the Lord
While the students and teachers are naturally motivated to help their community, Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ plays a crucial element in their inspiration.
The pope officially released Laudato Si’ — his second encyclical ode to reforming society’s relationship with the world — in June 2015. The letter covers many social topics, but specifically notes environmental issues, which is the primary root Catholic schools in Florida take with them when they repair their communities.
Pope Francis doesn’t pull any punches when acknowledging the blatant and horrible effects of environmental pollution and global warming. “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years,” the pope wrote in his letter.
“(Pope Francis) makes it so easy to tie it all together,” Ensell said of bringing faith and environmental activism as one. In addition to helping the beaches, “our students visit the soup kitchen and we focus on our obligation to care for the poor and the vulnerable. Have (the students) do something tangible that is not only helping the environment but is also showing them how to live their faith in a way that they may not experience.”
Jessica and Wyatt incorporate their Catholic values into their involvement, as well.
For Wyatt, he believes the solution comes from taking personal action. “Dispose of garbage correctly,” because “we believe God created the entire earth to live on and not destroy.
Jessica agreed with Wyatt’s sentiments. “We are keeping in mind all day the Ten Commandments,” she said. “Whatever he made, we are the people who should protect it.”
To Jeremy, “The goal is to care for God’s creation and save the lives that he has created. It affects me when I go fishing. I know that not only I am caring for his creation, I am saving the food that he has provided for me.”
“Catholic social teaching is very attractive to teenagers,” Ensell said. “It is a good way to get out and do services and tie it to the faith. The students are ones doing the Lord’s work.”