Community Voices

Friends and Neighbors: Middle-school students vie in Mercantil Commercebank photo contest

Middle-school students who love photography celebrate with new friends — animal and human — at the 2014 Mercantil Commercebank’s Zoolens Photography Project.
Middle-school students who love photography celebrate with new friends — animal and human — at the 2014 Mercantil Commercebank’s Zoolens Photography Project.

Lions, tigers and bears … oh, yes! Now is the chance for all middle-school students to get in on the fun at Zoo Miami by taking interesting photos of their favorite animals.

The month-long creative event, Mercantil Commercebank’s ZoolensSM Photography Project, runs through Oct. 31. The program is hosted in partnership with Zoo Miami and the Zoological Society of Florida.

And there are prizes.

Distinguished judges will choose three grand-prize winners. The top three and 10 honorable mention winners will be announced at an awards ceremony in December.

The first-place winner will receive a $2,000 savings account, the second-place winner will receive a $1,500 savings account. There is $1,000 savings account for the winner in third place. The 10 honorable mentions will each receive a $100 Visa Gift Card.

The top winners also will receive a professional camera and student membership to the North American Nature Photography Association. Their schools will receive donations from Mercantil Commercebank.

“In our ongoing commitment to support local art and education initiatives, we are pleased to once again present the ZoolensSM Photography Project,” said Mercantil Commercebank Vice-Chairman and CEO Millar Wilson in a news release. “It is our pleasure to continue to inspire creative learning and celebrate the talent of Miami-Dade County’s middle school students through this innovative program.”

The goal here is to foster wildlife appreciation and education through photography. The contest is open to all middle-school students in public and private schools in Miami-Dade County. It was developed in 2010 and has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since.

And for the first time this year, the bank will present a “ZoolensSM Fans’ Choice” social media contest at the Zoolens Facebook page. A photo album of the top 30 finalists’ submissions will be posted to the page in mid-November and will be open for voting to all page followers. The first-ever winner of the “ZoolensSM Fans’ Choice Award” will be announced at the awards ceremony.

“I am delighted to be involved in ZoolensSM once again and to have the opportunity to play a role in broadening students’ appreciation of photography and wildlife,” said Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill, who serves as a contest judge. “With participation in the program continuing to grow, I look forward to this year’s creative captures.”

Students interested in participating must submit an original, artistic photograph of a Zoo Miami animal before 5 p.m. Nov. 2. Submissions can be made through a student’s school or at any Mercantil Commercebank banking center. More guidelines are at

Judges this year also include the Miami Herald’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Patrick Farrell; internationally acclaimed photo-artist Maria Martinez-Cañas; New World School of the Arts visual arts professor and curator Rosario Martinez-Cañas; WPLG-Ch. 10 anchor and animal advocate Jacey Birch; and Grizzel M. Gonzalez, vice president, marketing/channels manager at Mercantil Commercebank.

Unity Coalition awards

Congratulations to the winners of the Unity Coalition | Coalición Unida awards that celebrate the good, positive and outstanding members in the Hispanic LGBT and ally communities in South Florida.

The mission of the annual event is to recognize those who help us all “focus on how we can inspire others to do good, excel, be proud of who they are and just be better people.”

This year, the awards event was held at Miami Beach’s famed Hotel Victor on Ocean Drive. Honored were Jonathan Plutzik, Caridad Moro-Gronlier, Milan Rodriguez, and Leo Lam Haines.

Plutzik received the Community Visionary & Ally Award. As owner of The Betsy-South Beach, and with his sister, Deborah Briggs-Plutzik, they have established lodging and creative art space through the Writer’s Room at The Betsy program.

“Our partnership with Unity Coaltion | Coalición Unida is an important part of The Betsy’s programming in the LGBT space and I am delighted to accept this award as we anticipate many more partnerships that will serve the LGBT community in this region, and beyond,” Plutzik said in a news release.

Moro-Gronlier received the Educational Leader Award. She is a poet, mother, wife, author, community leader and teacher at G. Holmes Braddock Sr. High School and the recipient of a Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in poetry.

Rodriguez was honored with the Unsung Hero Award. Born in Cuba, she migrated to Miami in the 1980s to start a new life. She focused on graphic design, photography and promotions, and has worked tirelessly on behalf of her transgender and Hispanic LGBT community.

Lam Haines received the Youth Leadership Award. A transgender high school student, Lam Haines created a “Beyond the Binary” trans and gender-nonconforming support group in school after finding it difficult to have community there.

To learn more about the honorees and Unity Coalition, visit

Community chorus

Crescendo is meeting again in South Miami after a summer break. This inspiring community group for teens and adults with developmental disabilities gathers for the joy of music and friendship from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., every Monday at St. Matthew's Church in the Parish Hall, 7410 Sunset Dr.

The mission of the group is “to help enrich the lives of our members as well as help them grow musically in a positive social environment.” The only requirement is that the individuals love to sing.

Participants over the age of 14, of all musical abilities, are invited to join. Visit a rehearsal for free to see what this group is about. Volunteers and caregivers also are welcome to sing with the group. A monthly member fee of $25 is asked to cover rental of the facility and other group expenses.

Claire Gentry, Crescendo director and board-certified music therapist, can be reached at For more on this special group of musicians visit

If you have news for this column, please send it to Christina Mayo at