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Posted on Sun, Apr. 18, 2004

Class takes spirit into Gulf water

Harllee Middle School students venture underwater to clean a reef made in an award-winning project

Special to the Herald

Making and maintaining reef balls in the bay may seem like a lot of work, but for the "Reef Rakers," it's just taking care of what they already started.

"I think it's pretty cool," said 11-year-old Meagan Keeley, a sixth-grader at Harllee Middle School who has been involved in the Reef Rakers since its beginning.

The Harllee Middle students' dedication to their reef project won them a $10,000 environmental award, which they will pick up Friday in San Diego.

The Reef Rakers began as an after-school program called "Science is Cool after School," started by sixth-grade science teacher Rick Smith. Last year, students built round concrete reefs and dropped them into the bay and Gulf waters to attract marine life and improve the water quality. It also helped them study science outside of the classroom, said Smith.

"The kids are doing a real hands-on science program," he said.

With the reef balls deployed in the water, the students focused their energy on other environmental projects - at least until a recent viewing of film footage of their dirty reef shot for Manatee Education Television.

It was then the Harllee students realized there was more work to be done than just dumping the balls into the water, and the Reef Rakers were born. They developed a diving program and last month were certified to dive up to 60 feet. They made their first dive Saturday to the reef they created.

It was a dream come true for the students, said Harllee teacher and Reef Rakers co-facilitator Cheryl Hughes.

"For them to have this kind of experience is absolutely amazing," she said.

The diving experience was made possible through a partnership with the Manateens and the Boys & Girls Clubs and $17,000 donated by local agencies.

"If I didn't have the support I had, I would never be able to do this," said Keeley, who was nervously waiting to dive. "It gives kids an experience they will never get in their life."

A caravan of nine boats carried the Reef Rakers and other volunteers 3 miles off Coquina Beach.

Once offshore, they divided into teams of two or three divers and spent at least an hour plucking fishing line, anchors and whatever else they could find from the reef balls. Once they returned, LaRoza said, the Harllee students planned to study what they found and explore why it keeps ending up on the reefs.

Hughes said it has been more than just a school project to help the environment around them.

"It's empowering to see the kids taking something from the classroom into the real world," she said.

Volunteers gather to clean up county

Cigarettes, cans - even a toilet - were taken away

The consensus was that someone must have had a party here.

Volunteers pulled one beer can after another - along with beer cartons and packages - from mangroves on Coquina Beach during a countywide cleanup Saturday, an event that brought together thousands of people to pick up trash along streets, roads and shorelines.

Three other cleanups were held around Manatee County in March.

On streets on Anna Maria Island, a group found that 30 percent of their 130 pounds of trash were cigarettes, said Ingrid McClellan, director of Keep Manatee Beautiful. Cigarette litter represents more than 20 percent of the litter collected in the community cleanups, according to officials of the Keep American Beautiful Great American Cleanup.

"That's pretty significant," she said.

At the Terra Ceia Bay Estuary, which was noted as one of the dirtiest sites in the county, five volunteers from the Wildlife Rescue Service collected 3,420 pounds of litter, McClellan said. On Ninth Street West, a family said the main piece of litter they collected was empty phone card packaging.

Elsewhere in the county, one group found a refrigerator. Another group discovered a toilet dumped along 26th Court East in Bradenton. The street, being cleaned by a family of volunteers, was said to be a mess.

"They (the volunteers) said it looked like it hadn't been cleaned in years," said McClellan.

The weight of all the garbage collected won't be tallied until later this week, she said.

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