Like anything worthwhile, Jacksonville District’s observance of Take Pride in America Day took a lot of planning, preparation and hard work. For the Corps employees and volunteers who participated in the May 4 event, the results were well worth the effort again this year. It was a win-win for everyone involved.
The annual Take Pride in America Day is part of a long-standing tradition around Lake Okeechobee and the Okeechobee Waterway. The first events took place at the South Florida Operations Office in Clewiston, beginning in 1986. Later, volunteer coordinator and park ranger Phil Hart, who works at the W.P. Franklin Lock & Dam in Alva, Fla. coordinated the event for five years, from 1999 through 2003. Hart then passed the torch to park ranger Richard Bailey, who has taken the lead for the past 10 years. Bailey has worked with many organizations, including church groups, Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts, and Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) units. The event provided an opportunity for the park ranger to do two of the things that he really enjoys.
“I like working with people and I like working out in the field,” Bailey said.
Bailey has a background in wildlife biology and understands the principles such as diversity that drive a healthy ecosystem.
“I don’t just plant Live Oaks; I always use a variety of plants and I try to replace exotic plants with something else. I try to integrate native plants into the landscape whenever I can,” he said.
The small but beautiful Atala Hairstreak Butterfly is dependent upon Coontie as its host plant. The Florida subspecies of this butterfly was at one time believed to have become extinct due to over-harvest of its host plant, and it was not collected in Florida from 1937 until 1959. The Atala is now common locally in southeast Florida, rebounding to some extent thanks to people like Bailey, who use native plants such as Coontie for landscaping purposes.
During one of his earlier efforts, Bailey provided plants such as Blue Porter Weed, Red Tropical Sage and Blanket Flower to volunteers to create a butterfly garden at W. P. Franklin Lock and Dam. He has spruced up visitor centers, locks and dams, campgrounds, volunteer camping sites and recreation areas. He uses plants for beautification and wildlife and to make camping areas more pleasant, providing shade and screening for more privacy.
Several Corps employees and volunteers worked hard for days ahead of the Take Pride event, digging holes wide enough to allow for healthy root expansion for newly planted trees and surrounding each hole with caution tape for safety purposes. Each plant with a one-foot by one-foot root ball required a three-foot by three-foot hole and most of the trees to be planted had seven to 15 gallon root balls. Trees, shrubs and mulch were set in place on site, and equipment such as shovels and rakes were assembled.
Over the years, Bailey has built relationships and worked with a variety of organizations. Command Sergeant Major (retired) Bill Lansberry, senior Army instructor at North Fort Myers High School, contacted Bailey, seeking a community project for his unit. The Corps provided the pavilions and other facilities for the campers, and for the fourth year in a row, the JROTC from the North Fort Myers High School volunteered to participate in Take Pride in America Day.
The JROTC is a federal program sponsored by the United States Armed Forces in high schools across the United States. The purpose of JROTC is to instill in students the values of citizenship, service to the United States, personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment. Community projects are one way to accomplish this goal.
On Friday afternoon, “Tootsie” one of the volunteer park hosts, welcomed the JROTC volunteers to the Ortona North Recreation Area, where they set up tents and camped out for the weekend.
Waking up on site made it easier for everyone to be up bright and early to begin Take Pride in America Day in the cool of the morning on Saturday, May 4. The volunteers planted native trees and bushes at Ortona North Recreation Area on the Caloosahatchee River and at the entrance to the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam on the west side of Lake Okeechobee.
At the Ortona North Recreation Area on the Caloosahatchee River in Alva, volunteers learned how to plant correctly, to give the plants the best possible chance for success. They planted, watered and mulched 10 new native trees, shrubs and flowers. Some of the plants include the Pigeon-Plum, an evergreen tree that has purple fruit that attracts birds; ‘Little Gem’ Southern Magnolia, with fragrant white flowers and bright red seeds used by a variety of wildlife; Gumbo-Limbo, a large tree with attractive shiny, coppery bark; shade-loving Myrsine that attracts butterflies; Red Maple for shade and fall color and Dahoon Holly, which has brilliant red berries that serve as an excellent food source for wildlife. Firebush, with its tubular red-orange flowers and berries is another valuable addition to native plant, butterfly and hummingbird gardens. The Firebush is not just beautiful -- modern researchers have found that extracts of the plant contain several active phytochemicals that have antibacterial and antifungal properties. In addition to the planting, volunteers also learned how to do much-needed maintenance by pruning many of the existing trees and removing moss growth.
The group then traveled to the Moore Haven Lock and Dam on the west side of Lake Okeechobee, where they planted, watered and mulched 12 Royal Palm trees along the entrance road. These beautiful and stately palms, which are native to Florida, will provide shade.
Many people contributed and worked together to make Take Pride in America Day a success, including Henry "Bo" Harrell, a general maintenance worker with R&D Maintenance Services, Inc., who volunteered to photograph the event. At the end of the event, after all of the tools had been cleaned, Bailey presented the volunteers with certificates of appreciation.
“It’s really important for us to recognize the contributions made by our volunteers and to show appreciation for their service. They all did a great job! Many of the kids told me that they really enjoyed the experience,” said Bailey. “They loved camping and being outdoors with their friends.”