It wasn’t just the chance to spend a week in the Florida Keys that enticed over 10 Worcester State students to sign up for a recent spring break trip. It was also the chance to help restore Grimal Grove, a historic tropical fruit paradise.
“The grove originally belonged to a guy named Adolf Grimal. He came to the Keys alone. He had this vision of creating this edible park,” says junior psychology  major Madison Thomas, who, as vice president of the student group Woo Serve, served as the trip’s student leader. “After he had passed on, the whole grove fell into disrepair. Patrick [Garvey], who owns the place now, is working toward getting grants … to revive Grimal’s idea, his dreams for this grove.”
Returning the tropical fruit grove to its previous natural beauty is in its third year, and Garvey relies on volunteers to get much of the work done. His nonprofit organization, The Growing Hope Initiative at Grimal Grove , has partnered with the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project. That partnership is how the director of WSU’s John J. Binienda Center for Civic Engagement , Mark Wagner, Ph.D., found out about Grimal Grove.
“The Binienda Center has supported service trips to Nicaragua , Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic, but I always felt that in doing so we ignore needs in our very own country,” Wagner explains. “So I happily agreed to work with SERCAP and was rewarded when Ashton Fallen called back and said she had a project in the Florida Keys in March, a project with a group called Growing Hope who was restoring Grimal Grove on Big Pine Key. It was a no-brainer.”
Once Woo Serve announced the trip, there was high student interest, and all the available seats were quickly taken, according to Thomas. In the end, 10 students (eight members of Woo Serve and two members of the Community Leadership Experience at Worcester State) and two advisors went.
“I love the idea of ‘volun-tourism,’” Thomas says. “It was a perfect balance between the two. It was really nice to go to Florida…but I was actually really excited to work at the grove and doing something I’ve never done before in learning about the different fruits and trees and the history of the grove and how far it’s come in three short years.”
Juniors Nick Clark and Tim Jarvis, who are both double majors in history  and liberal studies  and members of CLEWS, signed up for similar reasons. Clark was drawn to the idea of gardening and landscaping “to fill a need;” Jarvis to the chance to “get some kind of fulfillment from” a vacation.
The group flew to Fort Lauderdale from Worcester Airport and drove three hours in a 14-seat van to Glad Tidings Church on Key West, where they lodged for the week. “We drove down to Big Pine Key Monday through Friday, and we worked from 9 till around 2, helping out around the grove—planting, weeding, painting,” Thomas says.
Each day, the WSU students were split up—some to work in the grove and others to work at a farm stand, which sold fruit grown on the grove and by members of the Big Pine Key community, Clark says. “It felt great to be a part of that community. It really felt like you were connected to everyone.”
“We didn’t wake up dreading that 7:30 a.m. wake-up call to go to the grove,” Thomas says. “We would wake up excited to go. It was hard work, but it was extremely rewarding, especially being able to see the progress because it’s still in those stages where it’s not completely finished. So you get to see the progress you made.”
Afternoons were spent at the beach, and students met back at the church for dinner, taking turns cooking a favorite meal. They spent evenings in Mallory Square, where they experienced the nightly sunset celebration.
“Everyone would go to the pier, and there would be street performers,” Thomas says. “No one got bored of seeing the sun set. It was right on the water so it was beautiful to watch. Once it hits the horizon, everybody starts cheering, clapping, and taking pictures. Before you know it, the sun is gone.”
Jarvis was inspired by the vision for the grove and enlightened by the perspectives of the people working there. “The diversity of plant life there was incredible,” he says. “It was almost like a botanical garden [filled with] things that weren’t necessarily indigenous to that area of Florida, but that were still being grown there because they could be grown in that environment.”
The students headed back to Massachusetts proud of the impact they had on the grove.
“It’s gorgeous,” Thomas says. “I can’t imagine what it looked like before. After we left, it looked even better!”