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Kids rid parks of pesky plants

Student ambassadors' visit to Largo parks will be a wrenching experience, for the exotic plants, that is. The kids are volunteering as part of a summit.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published July 23, 2003

LARGO - Today, about 250 kids from Washington state and New York and other far-flung places around the country will spend the day cleaning up Largo parks.

People to People Student Ambassadors are visiting Largo Central Park's Nature Preserve, George McGough Nature Park and John Bonner Nature Park to clear out exotic plants. The kids, ages 11 to 17, are participating in the project as part of the student ambassadors' leadership summit at Rollins College in Orlando. During their visit to Florida, the student ambassadors will take part in workshops and community projects and explore topics, such as cultural and ethnic diversity.

Largo officials are grateful for the assistance.

"It's a great amount of help," said Greg Brown, Largo parks superintendent. "And they have a reason to come back to see what kind of work they did."

A crew from the parks department helped them out with the first step, hacking down a host of Brazilian peppers, exotic trees that spread quickly and shove out native plants. The kids are picking up the remnants, which will be discarded or recycled into mulch, Brown said.

The Brazilian peppers are a serious threat, because besides strangling other plants, the trees destroy wetlands and cause soil erosion.

"Instead of having 100 different types of native species, you have one giant stand of all Brazilian peppers," Brown said.

The trees inhabit about 700,000 acres of Florida land, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And they're a monumental problem in Largo, Brown said.

Of the 100 acres left for development in Largo Central Park, about 40 percent contain exotic species, such as the Brazilian pepper, air potato plants or melaleuca trees, Brown said. Bonner Park has about 30 to 40 percent of its land inhabited by non-native species. That figure is about 20 to 30 percent for McGough Park.

After the kids do their job, the city will come through and plant native species such as laurel oaks and red bay and hackberry trees.

The project was coordinated by the city's Recreation, Parks and Arts Department and 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares, an organization that provides information and referrals on human services and volunteer opportunities.

The idea for the project bloomed after the youth volunteer services coordinator for Tampa Bay Cares, George Vasiliou, was contacted by a representative from the student ambassadors program, who was looking for a service project for the kids. Vasiliou contacted the city and together they organized the cleanup.

Vasiliou is visiting each site to talk to the kids about volunteerism.

This event marks the largest group of volunteers the city has worked with on a single project, said Lance Riddile, volunteer coordinator for the Largo Cultural Center.

- Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 23, 2003, 11:45:52]


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