Eckerd College connects campus to community in St. Pete

Deep in the trees at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve on a recent Friday, Eckerd College students planted the seeds of a new community engagement program.

Staff, students and faculty pitched in on habitat restoration efforts, clearing brush and downed branches and removing invasive plants. It was part of a day of service on Friday, September 23rd to mark the launch of Eckerd's St. Pete Center for Civic Engagement and Social Impact- an initiative that will use research, service projects, education and events like a speakers series and community summits to connect the college to its hometown and work for solutions to real-world problems.

Volunteers from Eckerd fanned out to locations across St. Petersburg to help Boyd Hill staff and local nonprofit organizations like Daystar Life Services, Edible Peace Patch Project, Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Florida, Keep Pinellas Beautiful, St. Pete Youth Farm, Tampa Bay Estuary Program and Westminster Communities of Florida.

Wearing wide-brimmed straw hats and white shirts to guard against the sun’s rays, Eckerd senior Katherine Foree and junior Skyler Paoli pulled air potato vine from the underbrush at Boyd Hill's Terry Tomalin Campground.

“I love doing habitat restoration and I haven’t been able to do pretty much any since COVID started,” Paoli says. “I find it really gratifying to help the environment and I do it whenever I can.” 

The day of service and the new civic engagement initiative align with Eckerd’s educational mission, Foree says.

“It seems like a fruition of the values Eckerd is preaching, connecting with the community, being able to get out in the community, particularly after the pandemic, and help out, not just on our campus,” she says.

Jenny Fessler, the program coordinator for the St. Pete Center for Civic Engagement and Social Impact, says the program strives to do what a liberal arts education should do- develop a sense of commitment to the larger community. 

“It takes a solutions-based, problem-solving- approach to real-life challenges,” she says. “We are looking to be a bridge between campus and the community. And it is our community. We are part of St. Pete.”

Looking ahead, the newly launched center has two events on social and civil rights issues scheduled for October. On October 19, the center will host the event launch of the Florida Policy Institute’s Florida Timeline project, which looks at how discriminatory laws and policies in areas such as taxation and criminal justice impacted the state’s communities. On October 25, historian and author Charles Dew will give a talk, “The Making - and Unmaking - of a Racist,” looking back on his life growing up in the segregated South.

Then, on November 1, the program “Saving St. Pete - One Tree at a Time” will look at the importance and benefits of green infrastructure. 

In the future, Fessler says the center will work with the Skyway Marina District on a vision to build that area into an arts hub and with the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce on a project to follow 100 people who live in St. Pete and spotlight what they love about the city. Next fall, the center is planning an arts and innovation summit in collaboration with the St. Pete Arts Alliance and the St. Pete Innovation District. 

For more information go to Eckerd College St. Pete Center for Civic Engagement and Social Impact.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

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.