Members of the Randall Area Youth Service Council were talking trash on Monday, Jan. 16.
That is, the students from Randall Middle School were discussing the bounty of bottles, cans and paper they collected during their environmental cleanup at Lithia Springs Park on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"We found a lot of clothes and shoes," said student Grace French.
"I saw a lot of champagne and beer bottles and plastic bottles," said student Katie Jones.
The 38 students, age 12 to 14, spent their day off from school combing the woods around the park in search of litter as part of their continued commitment to serve their community.
Headed by Randall teacher Kristy Verdi, the R.A.Y.S. participate in a number of community service projects throughout the year.
"This is our third year cleaning up Lithia Springs Park, and our fifth year to do an environmental cleanup," said Verdi.
Accompanied by Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office parks deputies Roy Johnson and Dean Cary and Lithia Spring park ranger Bryan Hughes, the students targeted an area near the Lithia-Pinecrest Road bridge over the Alafia River that's become a teen hangout.
"It's illegal to come here," said Hughes. "This area is off limits to the public, but teens hang out here anyway.
At the hangout, teens have constructed a tree ladder and hung a rope swing over the Alafia River, which can be dangerous if the teens land in shallow water or on top of hidden debris in the river, said Hughes.
"We've had three broken necks," said Hughes. "When you're in high school, you think you're invincible."
The teens also light bonfires, which could cause brush fires in the area, he said.
Johnson said deputies attempt to keep the teens out of the area but, with 200 parks to patrol in Hillsborough County and only two parks deputies, it's a challenge.
"A lot of this stuff is happening at night so we'll do stakeouts if we're notified that something's going on," said Johnson.
"If we catch anyone, they will be arrested for trespassing and it will go on their permanent records," Johnson warned the R.A.Y.S. Council.
History teacher and head of the Randall social studies department, Dr. Anne Chatfield, took the opportunity to educate the students about the history of the area.
Once known as Hunting River, the area along the 25-mile Alafia River was occupied by the Tocobaga Indians. In the 16th centure, explorers Panfilo de Narvaez and Hernando de Soto explored and charted the river.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for the students to learn about the natural environment around them, right in their own back yards," said Chatfield, who grew up in Brandon and used to visit Lithia Springs as a child. "After cleaning up this area, they're going to appreciate it more and they're not going to litter. They'll feel it's a personal investment."
Student Abbi Paplin agreed.
"I thought this was a great learning experience," she said.
"I didn't expect to see so much trash," said student Kayla Valentin. "It surprised me."
Verdi took the opportunity to question the students about what future projects they could undertake in the area.
The students suggested removing the graffiti beneath the Lithia-Pinecrest bridge, planting trees in the open spaces and removing the nonindigenous air potato plants that strangle the area's natural palms.
In the meantime, the students were satisfied with their efforts after three hours of removing tires, bottles, even an old metal bed frame from the woods. In all, they collected about 20 bags of trash.
"I think we've done a very good service today," said Verdi.