UF students continue King legacy by helping community

Matthew Jones, president of the Florida Club Swimming members from the University of Florida, earns community service hours on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday by volunteering to remove prickly pear cacti from a quarter acre of the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery at 7204 SE County Road 234 near Gainesville on Monday.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, January 16, 2012 at 1:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 16, 2012 at 10:49 p.m.

It's an unusual way, to put it mildly, for University of Florida students to spend a day off — pulling prickly pear cacti from the grounds of a cemetery.

The volunteers at Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery outside Gainesville were among more than 175 UF students marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day by doing community service.

Students volunteered Monday morning at a dozen different area nonprofits, doing work such as sorting donations at a thrift shop and painting a home for single mothers.

UF students for years have volunteered informally on the King holiday, but it has been a university-organized event only for three years, said Beth Nahlik, assistant director of UF's Center for Leadership and Service.

The event is an effort to honor King's legacy of service, she said, while giving students an opportunity to work with local nonprofits.

“It's helpful for students to understand they're part of the larger community,” she said.

Any nonprofit can get involved, not just those with missions related to King's work.

Monday's service projects included a few involving working outdoors, including the project at Prairie Creek.

The cemetery, operated in cooperation with the Alachua Conservation Trust land conservation group, is a place for “green” burials that use biodegradable containers and avoid embalming fluids and vaults.

Cacti are a nuisance for the cemetery, their sharp spines making it difficult to dig in the open areas where burials take place.

“They're difficult to work around. They're difficult to remove,” said Paul Hoffhein, a volunteer with the conservation trust.

More than a dozen volunteers, all members of the Florida Club Swimming team, pulled cacti from the ground and disposed of them for the project.

Some students said they likely would be sleeping if not for the event but appreciated spending part of the day off outdoors working on a project that had a tangible benefit.

“This is a holiday that people don't know how to celebrate,” said Samantha Liebhaber, a senior political science and public relations major.

Students from the project and others returned to campus later in the morning for a lunch and reflection, finishing in time to attend the afternoon's King Day march in downtown Gainesville. DAve Kratzer, UF's Interim Vice President for Student Affairs, who spoke at the lunch, said doing volunteer work in college is a way to spark a lifelong commitment to service.

“You just feel the spirit in young people ... We need to capture that,” he said.

Contact Nathan Crabbe at 338-3176 or nathan.crabbe@gvillesun.com. For more stories on the University of Florida, visit www.thecampussun.com.

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