Miami Palmetto High School senior Denise Vaque volunteers at Zoo Miami’s Conservation Teen Scientist Program.
“We try to help them to connect to the message of why conservation is important,” she says. “I go twice a month. In the summer I did a lot more.”
This summer, she was able to help the new trainees, showing them how to navigate around the zoo, and helping them learn how to connect with the guests.
She also taught the trainees why the animals are so important and why the conservation message is so meaningful.
“Teaching the new kids was a full circle moment,” she says. “I used to be in their position.”
She was able to help the new trainees when they got nervous about meeting with the public by letting them know she also faced those fears and is now comfortable going up to people and talking to them.
In fact, the teen volunteers are given clickers to count the number of people they talk to in a day.
“I will have talked to 300 people and not realized it,” she says. “It’s such a big change. I was very nervous about speaking and approaching people before. I was so nervous about it.”
Vaque says before school presentations, her hands would shake. Being in the Zoo Miami program has helped her overcome her fears.
She began her training online because of the COVID lockdowns so she was happy when they were able to go back in person.
“I’m so passionate about this sort of thing. I went back and back again,” she says.
Her favorite animals are the Asian elephants.
“They’re beautiful,” she says. “I did my final interpretation on the Asian elephants. We have three of them and I can tell them apart on sight.”
Vaque volunteers for Fight Like a Girl, the organization founded by Mikayla Ashe that offers self-defense classes for females. She creates infographics for the self-defense tips that are posted on Instagram.
“I’ve taken her class before,” she says. “I think knowing self-defense is a super important thing.”
At school, Vaque is co-president of the Palmetto Women’s Union. She has gotten the club involved in Fight Like a Girl. They’ve worked with Ashe since January 2020 to work toward making members safer.
“I want to make the club bigger,” she says. “We talk a lot about issues involving women. We also have talks about sexual assault awareness.”
They also deal with body image issues.
“We had our first meeting on Oct. 14,” she says. “It was a really great experience to be back in person. We had a really good turnout of about 60 people.”
The topic was women’s sexual assault and harassment. It was a timely topic because of Halloween.
“We had a discussion about that,” she says. “Costumes are not consent. Their costume doesn’t make it okay for someone to touch them.”
The club will be working with a Girl Scout to help her achieve her Gold Award, and they plan a drive for period products to be distributed to homeless women.
Vaque is vice president of Palmetto’s chapter of No Place for Hate, a club that works to promote a sense of community at Palmetto through spreading an anti-bullying and anti-discrimination message. She’s also a member of DECA and she is a Palmetto varsity cheerleader.
Vaque is passionate about writing. She’s written short stories and took a playwriting class over the summer from Barnard College.
She’s applying to Barnard, Columbia, NYU, the University of Miami and Florida International University as an undecided student.
Linda Bernfeld Rodriguez