The University of Florida’s Office of Sustainability and the Healthy Gators Coalition recognized seven individuals and groups for the annual Champions for Change awards this year. Among the winners was the McCarty Woods Restoration team, led by the Florida Museum’s Douglas and Pamela Soltis, Lucas C. Majure and Matthew Gitzendanner.

McCarty Woods is a 2.9-acre forest in the heart of campus at the University of Florida. The woods were designated as a conservation area in 2000, but the university’s 2020-2030 master plan redefined the forest’s boundaries. Had the plan been enacted as originally written, most of the trees would have been cut down to make way for a new building, but a public outcry from students, staff and faculty convinced university administration to reverse course.

Researchers at the Florida Museum used the victory’s momentum to focus efforts on restoring the woods. Florida is a hotbed of invasive species, and the natural areas on campus are no exception. Tree canopies are crowded out by the fast-growing, light-hoarding cat’s claw vines (Dolichandra unguis-cati), outcompeted by proliferous, shade-tolerant paper mulberries (Broussonetia papyrifera) and hemmed in by evergreen wax-leaf privet (Ligustrum lucidum).

Restoring the delicate threads that tie this ecosystem together requires the continued effort of ardent volunteers. Each month, the restoration team organizes cleanups in which invasives are weeded out and native plants are added back in. During the dry season, additional volunteers head out to water the new saplings that don’t yet have a deep enough root system to withstand prolonged drought.

Group of people standing on a lawn clearing in front of a forest
Volunteer crews have been removing invasive plants in McCarty Woods for since May, 2021 and have recently begun planting native species in their stead.

Florida Museum photo by Kristen Grace

After nearly two years of work, the results are easily noticeable even to those without a discerning eye for plants. More light streams in through the canopy in the absence of invasive vines, and the previous blanket of cat’s claw and skunk vine (Paederia foetida) along the forest floor has been rolled back. The dappled understory now supports a diverse mosaic of native species, and a clearcut along the woods’ eastern flank — which occured when a groundcrew unintentionally felled trees inside the conservation area — has been effaced by a layer of juvenile trees and shrubs.

The 2023 awards highlight grassroots sustainability and wellness causes

The Champions for Change awards ceremony to recognize recipients and celebrate their success took place on Tuesday, April 18th.

These awards are presented annually to those in the university community who have made significant contributions in the areas of sustainability and health during their time at UF. Nominations are judged based upon the uniqueness of the achievement, the level of effort required, the commitment to sustaining the achievement and the significance for personal growth of the impact or the achievement on the UF community.

This year’s Champions for Change winners in the category of Health and Wellbeing include the UF-GAU Family and Childcare Committee & UF-GAU Bargaining Committee, who changed the amount of paid leave graduate assistants are eligible to receive from zero to eight weeks; and Manda Wittebort, who has created the successful Change Makers’ Dialogue program within the Brown Center for Leadership & Service.

Winners from the category of Sustainability include the CALM Update Team, who advocated for and implemented substantial updates to UF’s 31 conservation area plans; Sean Trainor, Warrington College of Business Management Communications faculty for advocating for non-tenure track faculty; the McCarty Woods Restoration Team for leading invasive species removals and reintroducing native plants to the area; Solar Gators, a student-run engineering team dedicated to designing and racing solar power electric vehicles; and Florida Home Energy Efficiency & Equity Coalition, a formal collaboration between UF-IFAS and the CWC (Community Weatherization Coalition) to improve housing security, financial stability, resilience and overall quality of life for Floridians.

The nomination period is open for approximately one month starting in February each year. This year, the Champions for Change program received 18 nominations highlighting personal and professional achievements and contributions from faculty, staff, students and organizations at UF.

For more information about the Champions for Change awards program and to read about each of this year’s winners, visit:

Sources: Douglas Soltis,;
Pamela Soltis,;
Lucas C. Majure,;
Matt Gitzendanner,

Media contacts: UF Office of Sustainability,;
Jerald Pinson,, 352-294-0452

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