By Tamas Mondovics

As part of an annual community service project, close to 30 Randall Middle School students volunteered last month to lend a hand and help protect the environment.

The project organized by the Randall Area Youth Service Council (R.A.Y.S.), sent the young volunteers, to FishHawk Preserve, located just north of the school within the County’s Lithia Springs Park.

The service-learning event, now known as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, which took place on Friday, January 13, has engaged the students in the removal of the invasive Urena lobata, or commonly called Caesar weed, which according to park officials is a plant species that is overtaking the native landscape.

“Caesar weed is considered an invasive species in the state of Florida as it grows as an annual weed in most parts except for the southern region, where it may live perennially,” said Andy Fairbanks with the Hillsborough County Lands Management.

On hand to guide the students Fairbanks emphasized that in Florida, the plant grows rapidly, in some cases up six feet tall by the end of its first year of growth.

“This project is both educational and a great community service activity for these students,” Fairbanks said.

Randall Middle School Service Learning Coordinator and Social Studies Teacher, Kristy Verdi, who served as event organizer said that the project is a great way for students to understand the true meaning of service and to get involved to support a community need.

“Our students have a strong sense of community need and these projects connect them to the community, while teaching them about civic responsibility, not to mention helping them figure out what they may want to do in the future.”

Sixth grade students, Shaw Bouleg, and her friend Madison Hurst, who have worked as a pair during the cleanup, agreed.

“I like helping the community,” Bouleg said, while Hurts added, “This is a good way to support the community and help protect our parks and environment.”

The students spend the morning at the park as part of attending to a list of projects scheduled for the day including mangrove clean up at McKay Bay in Tampa followed by a visit to a local recycling center.

For more info about the R.A.Y.S., please contact Kristy Verdi at

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