Skipping the Beach to Shovel Shells

Students give up spring break to help save the Bay

The Rutgers volunteers.
     Think back a few years. What did you do with your time and talents during spring break from college days? Be careful now. Maybe you shouldn’t answer in front of the children. Fortunately for those of us who love the Chesapeake Bay, a new generation knows how to break from the past and spring into action.
      Since 2009, college students from campuses across the country have travelled to Chesapeake Country for Alternative Spring Break. They forfeit a deserved respite from studies to volunteer their energies for Bay-saving endeavors like oyster restoration, forest-buffer tree-planting, urban lot-greening projects and honing sustainable farming techniques. Most bunk in cabins and some even camp out on the Bay — in windy, cold March.
     Oh, and at the end of the week they get a pizza party. 
     “It’s not about that,” laughs graduate intern Kaitlin West of Rutgers University as she and her team hoist shovel-full after shovel-full of oyster shells into screen bins to sift out the recyclable shells from the chaff. 
      “It’s not about the what of what we are doing but the why. If the Bay is healthy then everyone is healthy.”
     It’s not about the 30-degree weather or the winds whipping the cold through the flying shell dust, either.
     West, 25, smiles a great big smile and says how appreciative she is of the opportunity. She has already been to New Orleans in 2014 and 2015 to build or rehab homes. She’s not an engineering student or a marine biologist. Her Masters is in College Student Affairs under the Department of Leadership and Experiential Learning.
      “We are a team,” West says. “But we are comprised of individuals who made a choice to come to the Chesapeake Bay. We understand the mission of The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and we came to help.”
      Help is exactly what the Rutgers team provided at Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Oyster Restoration facilities by prepping shell to grow baby oysters in the coming warmer season.
     Sifting through the mounds of oyster shells is a task familiar to David Tana, 34, who first broke from college spring convention while a graduate student at the University of Maryland in 2011, again heading to the Bay in 2013 and 2014. Tana stopped volunteering in 2015 when The Chesapeake Bay Foundation hired him. Now he runs the program.
      “Each group brings their own measure of intensity,” Tana says. “But the groups are so different, they are the same.” He laughs as he says it. “They have different majors, backgrounds, cultures, goals, friends, phones, food tastes, everything. Yet they all have a common purpose: to save the Bay.”
      Tana greets each group with a short history of the Chesapeake Bay. 
      Any one of them could have opted for warmer climes or other projects, like, building homes in New Orleans. But they chose the Bay. 
      “This is Rutgers’ first time here. We want to be a part of the solution,” West says.
      Rutgers is not the only Bay saver. The University of Richmond and the University of Delaware have already come and gone. The University of Maryland and Charleston College will arrive soon.
      “During the week, each group helps with several of our initiatives,” Tana says. “We plant 10,000 trees annually as breaks between land and water to keep out pollutants. We inspect acres upon acres of existing tree breaks to make sure the screening we use to protect the saplings is secure. We help farmers grow crops naturally and assist in moving cattle from corn feed to grass.”
      Like West from Rutgers, Tana has reaped the benefit of the Alternative Spring Break’s opportunity to step outside of his comfort zone. Though the goal is the health of the Bay, the experience brings its own reward.
     “I’ve gotten phone calls from students who have come here,” he says. “They say, Hey, I changed my major or switched schools because of that trip. It gave me the … ’ And they fill in the blank of what was missing in the direction they were headed or the uncertainty of their future. 
     “For me, coming to help the Chesapeake Bay thrive was life-changing,” Tana says. “It’s really cool to see it happen to someone else.”