Lending a Helping Hand
Volunteers are not uncommon at Water Works Environmental Education Center.
They often come from nearby high schools and are put to work by volunteer coordinator Shann Purinton. Typically, they work the grounds by clearing brush, keeping an eye on gopher tortoises living on the 10-acre property or tackling other projects assigned to them.
Many have come and gone, but a group of students from Q.I. Roberts Junior-Senior High School lately are the most consistent.
On Wednesday, they were tasked with labeling plants growing throughout the property to track their locations and to provide visitors a chance to put names to the myriad of shrubbery they might encounter.
The three students who arrived Wednesday are officers of Q.I. Roberts’ FFA. Brian Banfield, the club’s president, said they got involved at the center after their faculty adviser came to an agreement with Purinton.
Tristen Lewis and Breawna Smith — the club’s vice president and secretary, respectively — have volunteered at the center with Banfield virtually every Wednesday since January.
While coordinators at the center direct volunteers, Purinton said she encourages them to find their own pet projects while they work. Part of that is making sure volunteers are familiar with the grounds.
“First and foremost, I’m a teacher. And to me, education is the key to whatever you’re trying to accomplish,” she said. “So being out here and having them discover what they like nurtures their desire to learn and have fun.”
The purpose of the nature projects is to teach student volunteers about the center’s work as well as having them experience the county’s native wildlife.
Palmer Kinser, a retired environmental scientist at St. Johns River Water Management District who volunteers at the center, said experiencing nature’s sounds, smells and sights can be more important than reading about them elsewhere.
“It’s not like just watching it on TV, where the resolution is good. This is the real thing,” he said.”
For many of the volunteers, the experience has expanded their horizons. Smith, a freshman, said the experience sparked an interest in the center’s fauna.
“I’ve always had a thing for animals, so it’s nice to be able to flip that,” she said.
To others, it’s a chance to escape while contributing to the community.
“Learning about nature is one thing, but it’s also about an enjoyment of simple things,” Banfield said. “In high school, we have tests and grades to worry about, so volunteering here gives us a chance to have a good time. And if we can give back to the community, that’s good, too.”
Some of the plants labeled are located on the north side of the property, where a fence installed by city of Palatka officials closes off Water Works from South 12th Street. Hopefully, Purinton said, the plants grow and cover the fence to beautify that section of the property.
“Our vision of this place is to have people come in, enjoy nature and maybe even have a picnic,” she said. “I think part of nature is that it shouldn’t just be preserved, but enjoyed.”
Smith and Lewis, a junior, plan on returning to the center next school year. As for the summer, they hope to visit periodically, depending on their schedules.
“I hope to come here for the rest of my high school years,” Smith said.
Banfield, however, will enroll at the University of Florida’s mechanical engineering program after he graduates this school year. Whenever he returns to Putnam County, he said, he will try to contribute to the center however he can.