Zoo Spotlight: Mya & Brenden, ZooTeen Leaders

September 29, 2017

Mya Santiago (left)
Mya Santiago (left)
Brenden John
Brenden John

How and when did you get involved with ZooTeens?

I have been a part of the ZooTeen program for five years now. Growing up, I lived only 10 minutes from the Zoo and my parents always brought my siblings and I to visit. So in eighth grade when my mom discovered the ZooTeen program, I was more than thrilled to apply.

I joined the ZooTeen program the summer before eighth grade. I had participated in summer camps around Rochester before, but I was interested in the zoological field so I applied for ZooTeens and the rest is history.

What does it mean to be a ZooTeen Leader?

The ZooTeen Leader program means a lot to me. It represents young people who want to make a change in their community, in their lives, and for the general welfare of animals. Becoming a ZooTeen Leader is one of my greatest accomplishments. The program is a great example of the dedication and love that people from all different walks of life can have for our environment and the animals that coexist on this Earth with us.

The ZooTeen leader program adds supplemental learning for ZooTeens that carries over into the following summers. The program also comes with additional responsibilities. The 2016-17 season especially challenged me to step up and take on a larger role within the program, and even came with the opportunity to speak at the Rochester Teen Summit.

Describe the skills you’ve developed.

The ZooTeen Leader program has helped me improve my communication skills and understanding of the world and people around me. Being a ZooTeen has challenged me creatively and has introduced me to different educational perspectives.

After five years of this program and 17 years of being a patron of the Zoo, I’m still growing and learning about the animals, conservation programs, and the community. The Zoo is truly an amazing place to learn and grow as a person and I have been extremely thankful to be a ZooTeen.

The ZooTeen and ZooTeen Leader programs are incubators for people looking to better themselves. I came into the program in 2012 quite timid. However, as I gained a better understanding of the stations, my overall confidence and knowledge grew. With each ZooTeen season came new skills and a greater sense of maturity.

I would potentially speak with hundreds of people a day from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. I learned how to speak in various situations and still deliver our message in a fun and engaging manner. The program also helped me find out the best ways to mix professionalism with a healthy dose of humor.

Does being a ZooTeen take you out of your comfort zone?

I was accepted into the ZooTeen Leader program right before my freshman year of High School, becoming one of the youngest ZooTeen Leaders at the Zoo. This required me to step up and help my fellow ZooTeens the same way past leaders had helped me.

ZooTeens is a very welcoming program with so many kind and friendly people who have opened my eyes to new ways of thinking. I am so lucky to have formed friendships with such a diverse group of teens that will long transcend past this program. I have friendships with teens from other schools and districts that in any other circumstance I would unfortunately never get the chance to meet.

Absolutely. I broke out of my shell because I didn’t want to let my groupmates down and I also just wanted to better myself. In my first year, we received progress reports indicating what we did or didn’t do well. My report wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be, so I decided to keep working.

The program forced me to improve my social skills. By working with people I didn’t know well, all with different backgrounds, I discovered how to find common ground and make conservation. I can now say I’m an outgoing person because of the ZooTeen program.

What do you hope to do with all the knowledge and experience you’ve gained?

I hope to apply all the wonderful knowledge and experiences I have gained to my future studies. After I graduate, I plan on going to college for veterinarian medicine and hopefully can come back and work at the Zoo! I’d also like to travel and work with underdeveloped countries to build a stronger bridge between their people and ecosystems, creating a pathway to a brighter future for humans and animals alike.

I think it’s a very important thing to gain bankable skills before entering college or the work force, and ZooTeens helped me do just that. The program also helped me see more potential for myself. This fall, I’m studying film at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. I’m interested in acting, directing, and writing. This industry is honestly terrifying and hard to find success in, but ZooTeens has helped me grow into a more well-rounded and outgoing person. I believe I can succeed because of the skills I’ve learned and developed through the program.

No matter how much or how little you know about animals, apply for ZooTeens! This program will help you learn and grow in ways you could’ve never imagined!

-Mya Santiago

ZooTeen Leader applications are now open and will be accepted until October 1st, while applications for the 2018 ZooTeen Program will open Spring 2018.