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Posted on Sun, Oct. 24, 2004
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ManaTEENS dive in to clean reef

Special to the Herald

Reef Rakers dived into Gulf waters Saturday to clean Silvertooth Reef as part of Make a Difference Day.

About 25 ManaTEENS and their parents arrived at Sarasota's Marina Jack to board two boats, which shuttled them to a reef made from pieces of the old John Ringling Causeway Bridge.

"It's a new reef," said Rick Smith, a science teacher at Kinnan Elementary School. "It hasn't been cleaned before."

Make a Difference Day was created by USA Weekend Magazine, and takes place every year on the fourth Saturday in October.

Actor and salad-dressing magnate Paul Newman donates $10,000 each to 10 selected projects each year. The Reef Rakers hope to win one of the 10 prizes.

The Reef Rakers started with a group of children from a Harllee Middle School after-school science program called "Science is Cool After School," headed by Smith, then a Harllee teacher.

Smith wanted the program to be a hands-on way to learn science. Students built and dropped round concrete balls into the bay and Gulf waters to make reefs to attract marine life and in turn help improve water quality.

Once the reef balls were deployed, the students realized there was much more to the project than just making reefs. The Reef Rakers were born as a means to clean the reefs.

"We've studied it in class," said Harllee Middle Schoolteacher, Cheryl Hughes. "They said let's do something about it."

In order to collect trash that might collect on the reefs, students and parents then were trained and certified as divers. By cleaning the reefs, the Reef Rakers are making a positive impact on the environment, Smith said.

"I want the kids to get excited about making a difference in the world," said Smith.

The Reef Rakers' initial dive was last April to clean the original Harllee Middle School reef balls in the Gulf of Mexico off of Coquina Beach. But the waters were cold and murky during that dive, making it difficult. This time, the waters were still warm from summer.

"Science is Cool After School" has been awarded several grants from the Sarasota Bay Estuary program and has received a Gulf Guardian Award for the students' work with the reefs.

Becca Cook, 15, a student at Bayshore High School said she joined the Reef Rakers because it was a chance for her to dive and help the environment.

"I want to be a marine biologist when I grow up," Cook said.

Fellow Reef Raker, Heather Johnson, 14, a student at Southeast High School said she just wanted to make a difference in the environment, even though her asthma prevented her from becoming a certified diver. She stays aboard the boat and performs other tasks while divers are in the water cleaning the reefs.

"I think we should help the earth, because this is where we live," Johnson said.

Park clean-up stalled

Eight miles east of Interstate 75, volunteers were supposed to help park rangers at Lake Manatee State Park clean storm debris left from the three hurricanes that swept through Florida in August and September. The clean-up was a part of Take Pride in Florida - a statewide volunteer program "to protect and preserve America's public lands," launched by Gov. Jeb Bush. Lake Manatee State Park's Take Pride in Florida effort was also in conjunction with Making A Difference Day.

By 11 a.m. Saturday, only three park personnel sawed downed trees and gathered tree branches in the park's picnic area, which was the hardest hit area from the storms in the 485-acre park on one of the area's only freshwater lakes.

Lake Manatee State Park was lucky compared with other state parks across the state, said assistant park manager, Gloria Beauchamp. None of the damage was severe enough to warrant closing the park, she said.

"The trees in the camping area knew where to fall," said Beauchamp.

Although none of the park's buildings suffered any damage, about 50 trees were damaged from the winds of Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne, with the last one leaving the most devastation, said park manager, Curt Wolbert. Park rangers had been able to keep up with storm debris until that point, he said.

"When Jeanne came through, she wreaked a little havoc," he said. "We really had a good grip on it until then."

The park is known for its oak hammocks, its birds and wildlife, and has a new boat ramp and newly paved roads.

"The hurricanes put a damper on some of the programs," Beauchamp said.

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