Along the stretch of Allens Creek that runs past Belcher Elementary School, there's a nest of nasty Brazilian pepper plants, 15 feet tall.
Scratch that. There was a bunch of Brazilian peppers. They disappeared over the weekend, thanks to students from Belcher Elementary's science club, some University of South Florida students and five local arborists who volunteered their time.
Two teachers, Michele John and Lance Oij, run the after-school science club. Lately, their students have been focusing on environmental issues and on how they could clean up their community.
"Every year the science club has a different project," said Oij, a science teacher. "This year Michele and principal (Lisa) Roth came up with the idea of removing the invasive plants along Allens Creek."
According to John, three-fourths of those invasives were Brazilian pepper plants — some with trunks 8 inches in diameter. To win the battle, volunteers would need to bring chain saws, thick gloves, and a solution designed to prevent regrowth.
"We began by calling the city, Pinellas County, Swiftmud, Tampa Bay Watch and the Arborist Club," said John, a fourth-grade teacher. "Most people suggested we do it ourselves. Then I called Joe, an arborist who worked at my home."
Joe Pazourek, who owns a Pinellas County landscaping business that bears his name, told John it wasn't a good idea for teachers and children to cut down the plants themselves. Brazilian peppers are related to poison oak. They can cause skin rashes and swelling of the face and eyes.
But the $500 that the science club had raised wouldn't be enough to hire an arborist to do the job. Pazourek volunteered to see what he could do.
"Joe thought it was a shame for the science club to spend all their money on having the work done," said Joe's wife, Cindy Pazourek. "He contacted his friends in the industry."
Meanwhile, science club members were picking up trash from Allens Creek for an hour on Tuesdays after school.
Michele John's husband is Dr. David John, an adjunct professor of environmental science, policy and geography at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He spoke to his students and posted information on Saturday's cleanup. Some college students jumped at the chance to help.
"I'm taking environmental classes and learning the damage done to the natural habitat by invasive plants," said Matthew Cummings, 19, of St. Petersburg.
Shiloh Gilbert, a 19-year-old education major, came too.
"I've done environmental cleanups before," said Gilbert. "I like helping out, plus we get 20 extra credits for helping our community."
Westenberger Tree Service of Clearwater donated its bucket truck. Loren Westenberger worked from the raised bucket. In one fell swoop, trees tied to a rope were lifted over a fence, saving volunteers time and energy.
Before noon, 30 volunteers had created two piles totaling at least 250 cubic yards of brush. Pazourek estimated the job would have cost almost $5,000, even with the Pinellas County School Board removing the piles.
Dunedin arborist Art Finn and his son Shane, 19, volunteered their time, chain saw and other supplies.
"Shane went to Belcher Elementary School years ago," said Finn, 56. "We wanted to give back to a school that gave him so much."
Fifth-grader Michael Ulrich, John's student from last year, rode his bike to participate.
"I like it back there," said Michael, 11, pointing at the fence separating the school and the creek. "I go after school to get lost balls and bring them back to school. But I don't like plants invading the mangroves, so I came to help clear them out."
Pazourek, 44, understands that desire to help.
"It felt good to do something positive for the community," he said. "It's our slow season. We had the people and skills to get it done. That way the science club can save its money for other projects."