Trading laptops for shovels: a new kind of office retreat

This article is part of an occasional series that focuses on FIU students, employees and alumni who contribute to either the local or global community through volunteer service.


A sweaty afternoon of planting firebushes and milkweed plants paid off in more ways than one.

That was the takeaway for more than 150 FIU Online staff who in October headed miles from campus, literally and figuratively, for a team-building activity in a low-income neighborhood. It provided the chance to strengthen work relationships while making a lasting difference.

“We left something big behind, and everyone can view it,” said Lissette Llanes, FIU Online associate director of marketing. “And we all did it together, which is the best part of all.”

fiu online service event

All together now: FIU Online staff worked to build something meaningful at a low-income school.

That “something” is a reading garden, a request made by the principal of Brownsville Middle School in northwest Miami, where the majority of students are reading below grade level. The hope was to provide a serene space that would improve literacy and also serve as a calming influence at a school that has seen youth rivalries escalate to the level of near violence.

Performing a day of service had been a goal of administrators and staff for a while, recalls FIU Online event and administrative coordinator Theresa “Tessie” Ladaga, but “we didn’t know the best way to do it.”

To facilitate their volunteer activity, Ladaga reached out to HandsOn Miami, a nonprofit that matches volunteers with community projects. The organization made connecting with the middle school easy and coordinated the effort.

And so the group headed out on a Tuesday morning for a day of gardening that included digging up grass, laying mulch, building wooden benches and planting native species chosen to attract butterflies.

“It was really gratifying,” says Ladaga, who remembers the interest shown by the students as they watched the work taking place. “You weren’t just doing it without putting faces to it. We were able to see who these kids were and what there situations were. You could see by interacting with them, you could tell that they want that attention.”

And the payoff extended to the FIU staff as well. “Our team is very united so we do all love to get together,” Ladaga says. “What’s great to see is everyone gets so excited. Everyone was able to bond.”

A follow-up survey indicated that most who participated found the experience personally valuable and a “good majority” expressed a desire to undertake similar volunteer activities on their own time.

“It was for one common good,” says Ladaga of what began as a team-building event and, in the end, touched the hearts of children. “The fact that we made a difference made it that much nicer.”


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