Volunteer group from university helps keep Virginia Key Beach clean for all

Posted November 14,  2015


KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Mixed feelings washed over me as I stood on the sands of Virginia Key Beach. The warm sand was soothing on my bare feet, the shining sun was welcoming and the gentle breeze kissed my skin.

Nature is beautiful and powerful, but the pleasant feeling slowly faded when I saw what laid in front of me. The beautiful beach spoiled by trash littering the glistening sands. Not even nature can stand for long against human destruction.

To salvage the damage that was caused, I had arrived with eight people intent to reverse the ugliness. This was an important historical beach to the city of Miami and we wanted to preserve and honor that, for what it’s been through and for the community who has been through so much with the beach.

Tucked away on Virginia Key, just south of Key Biscayne, the beach hasn’t received the same visitor attention than its other beach-counterparts. Though located close to Key Biscayne, locals and tourists often forego Virginia Beach, driving past it to visit Crandon Park, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, or even choosing other popular beaches such as South Beach.

While a supposedly low-key Atlantic Ocean location like Virginia Beach should be unspoiled, it is because it is not well known, it sometimes attracts the wrong crowd.

Sean Jackson, one of the coordinators of Virginia Key Beach volunteer committee, said teenagers and college students use the beach to binge-drink, thinking they are safe from any watchful eyes.

“The kids think the security here isn’t good, that they can get wasted on our shores and litter the place,” Jackson said with a sigh.

With a certain kind demeanor and a warming smile, it belied his tall, imposing frame that made him feel approachable. Just hearing him talk about the beach made it clear how much he loves the area. And the sadness in his voice was apparent when he talked about the litter.

Armed with gloves and a trash bag, I saw numerous party-related items on the sand. From red Solo cups to beer bottles, from cigarette butts to syringes, the beach has definitely seen better days. The eight of us knew it was our job to restore the beach to it’s former glory.

Hailing from the University of Miami, we were celebrating Homecoming Week where we welcome back esteemed alumni who paved the way in making the great institution that it is known today. The community service effort we were doing was to help parts of Miami that made the city what it is today, and the Virginia Keys was one of them that needed help to be cleaned.

In its defense, we purposely picked the messiest part of the beach, the northern part, where there were not many people populating it during the day. During the night though, it seems there is a different story.

Yet underneath the party-fueled trash, the sand seemed to be in pristine condition. No amount of ash from cigarettes or coloring from beer seemed to damage it. It was as if the sand stood defiantly in protest of the pollution, refusing to be spoiled by humans.

“This is a beautiful beach, one with a rich history and we want to preserve that value,” Guy Fortune, executive director of Virginia Key Beach, said to our volunteer group.

He was referencing the history of the beach during the civil rights movement, where colored people could not share a beach with whites. The beach was used to segregate the different races, eventually making Virginia the only beach to allow blacks on its sands.

It was only in 1960 that the segregation ended, paving a way for racial harmony. The beach still was on the decline though, eroded by storms and invaded by exotic plants and animals, the park was closed on 1980 and only just reopened on Feb. 22, 2008.

“It is an important part in Miami’s history and is an ecological treasure,” Fortune added.

Hearing about the history of the beach shocked me. It served as a painful reminder about the social injustice that people faced, even with a simple activity of going to the beach. A friend who volunteered alongside me could recount a first-hand story of the segregation, as his father went through it.

“My dad used to tell me that only blacks were allowed on this beach and they weren’t allowed on others such as Crandon Park,” Tyrone Johnson said. “It used to make them so mad. Why must the color of your skin determine which location you can chill at?”

The beach certainly had its up and downs, with humans being the main problems for the beach. Apart from making the place look like an eyesore, it’s harmful for the wildlife in the area, with birds getting caught in plastic packaging and trash polluting the homes of the fish.

Even for kids who walk on the shores, they could be injured from stepping on a piece of broken glass from a bottle.

Through working tireless for four hours, the beach slowly reverted to its pristine condition. There was a lot of work to be done, but it was definitely much more desirable. We wanted to make the beach as welcoming as it could be for the alumni coming back to the city that was their home for four years. Above all, it was for the locals who forged many memories on these sands.

I wanted to see a nicer part of the beach so I walked down south and saw that the island is on the rise. It may have been through many hiccups but the restoration project has been done successfully to demand tourist attention back here.

There was a lot of activity that one can do on this key. I walked past a mountain bike park, near the northern tip where patrons could rent bicycles and cycle on a trail surrounded by trees. I was told by someone who worked with the bicycle rental business that the trail was an effort by nearly 100 volunteers that required three months.

Located on Arthur Lamb Jr. road at the northern tip of the key, there are bicycle trails that had difficulty levels for all bicycle riders, from beginner to intermediate. There is also a professional trail.

The one place that saw Virginia Beach’s popularity skyrocket was the tallest sandcastle that was ever built. Initiated by Turkish Airlines, the world-record sandcastle saw 12 sculptors working with 1,800 tons of sand to build the 45-foot tall sandcastle. It was completed on Oct. 27, just five days before I got to the beach.

As I walked to it, I was dwarfed by the enormity of it. The attention to detail was fantastic as I saw landmarks from all over the world. There was the Statue of Liberty, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal, the Miami downtown skyline and many others familiar sites.

I wasn’t the only one impressed as I saw numerous people with their mouths gaping wide-open that a sandcastle could be that big. I understood, the largest sandcastle I made only went up to my knee, and even then I wouldn’t call it a sandcastle, just some lumps of sand piled up. As the sandcastle would only be up for two more weeks before it is taken down, I joined all the selfie-taking tourist by taking a picture of my own.

The beach may not be as popular as it’s other counterparts but it is on the rise. More recreational activities are being set up. The part of the beach I helped clean up was dirty. However all along the coast of Virginia Key, there are many unspoiled beach areas with inviting sky blue waters. The place is on the rise. And anyone who goes there will wonder why there aren’t many people, but they can enjoy the beach quietly to themselves.


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