In Tampa Bay, community members help local governments with environmental stewardship

As the sun burns off the fog on a Friday morning, workers in green shirts plant shrubs and lay mulch around the playground at Ballast Point Park in south Tampa.

They are part of the “Green Team,” a band of service workers in a new environmental stewardship program the City of Tampa launched in partnership with AmeriCorps and Volunteer Florida.
Over the next 27 weeks, they will work 30 to 35 hours a week at city parks and public spaces, planting trees and shrubbery, cleaning litter from greenspaces, clearing debris from storm drains and appearing at community events. 

For their work, they receive a $2,100 monthly stipend for living expenses, $3,447.50 toward their education at completion of the program, professional development and career advancement opportunities and the potential forbearance of federal student loans.

But their primary reason for being here is to protect the environment against threats like climate change, pollution and storm damage.

“We’re just here because we love the environment,” says Andrea Rengifo, a Green Team member and Tampa native. “This is an environmental stewardship program. The core of the belief is that we are a community that coexists with the environment and it’s our job to protect it, to restore it, after what we’ve done to destroy the natural environment. We just believe that giving back to the community and helping our environment through things like planting or park beautification.”

Tampa’s inaugural Green Team, the first city-sponsored environmental stewardship program AmeriCorps has funded in Florida, has 20 members. 

“They’re doing this because they wanted to be here,” says Whit Remer, Tampa’s sustainability and resiliency officer. “We’ve got people in career transition, graduates from the USF Patel College of Global Sustainability, a whole diverse group of people that wanted to give back to our community and help make it a cleaner, greener place to work, live and play.”

Tampa's Green Team is an environmental stewardship service work program launched in collaboration with AmeriCorps and Volunteer Florida.Working primarily in city parks, they will maintain and restore the urban tree canopy that provides shade, beauty, clean air and protection against rising temperatures and extreme heat in a city that just finished its hottest year on record. They will clear litter and debris from stormwater drains to help with water quality and keep trash out of the streets, the river and the bay. They will also maintain green infrastructure like rain gardens and bioswales that help protect against flooding and improve water quality. 

“Everyone likes shade trees, but restoring the tree canopy really is an important thing to focus on as we have hotter, longer days in the summer with heat indexes of 105 degrees, increasing year after year,” Remer says. “We are combating climate change with the planting of trees. We are helping make sure that stormwater conveyance systems are free and clear so that those intense rain events that happen don’t gunk up our streets and flood property. These are all things we consider to be critical sustainability and resiliency initiatives”. 

Remer says the program fits within two policy focus areas of Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s administration - resiliency and sustainability and workforce development.

For Green Team member Angela Fama, a graduate student at the USF Patel College of Global Sustainability, environmental stewardship is a passion. She spends her free time picking up litter and gardening. 

“I am an active environmental advocate and enthusiast so when I learned of the opportunity of the Green Team seeing Whit speak at the annual Grow Gardens Conference, I knew I had to apply,” Fama says. “Being able to do the hands-on work and get my hands in the ground, get my feet dirty and go out into the streets of Tampa and really be able to make the environmental and sustainable changes that we need to promote sustainable development through these very crucial projects that help improve resilience is very important, especially here in a coastal community where we are so low-lying.”

The Green Team is part of a recent effort by some local governments to recruit community service workers and volunteers to help tackle environmental issues. Pinellas County and, more recently, St. Pete Beach have both launched Adopt-A-Drain programs for volunteers to inspect and clear storm drains near where they live.

The Pinellas County program is a partnership with the UF/IFAS Extension Pinellas County and currently has 10 volunteers working to inspect and maintain 75 drains with equipment provided by the program.

“It’s modeled after a program in San Francisco,” says Lara Milligan, natural resources agent with the UF/IFAS Extension Pinellas County. “The idea is people can adopt one or more drains. Their job is to go and inspect it at least once a month and if it is clogged with any leaf litter, debris or trash, they clean it out. Because the water that goes through storm drains just flows directly into some other body of water. There’s no treatment involved. The idea is to get litter, other contaminants and extra nutrients from things like grass clippings out of our water bodies. So it’s really a water quality improvement effort.”

The Pinellas County program initially launched with funding from a Tampa Bay Estuary Program Bay Mini-Grant. Milligan says county government and UF/IFAS have continued the program “because we see great potential in it.”

For more information, go to Tampa Green Team and Pinellas County Adopt A Drain.

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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.