Stephanie Duno is a high school student attending Doral’s Ronald Reagan High School. She has a large group of friends and earns good grades.
But when she’s done with her schoolwork, the 16-year-old from Venezuela dedicates her time to fighting for the well-being and rights of animals. She also dedicates some of her time to helping people in underprivileged communities.
“When I came from Caracas to the United States, I had a hard time making friends because I didn’t speak English,” said Stephanie, who was 7 years old when her family moved to the U.S. “I felt isolated and the only people I could communicate with were my relatives and a group of little ducks that lived close to my house. When I noticed how vulnerable they were, I became their protector and provider.”
Stephanie discovered that small actions such as giving water and small pieces of fruit to the ducks, as well as protecting them from neighborhood cats and towel-drying them after it rained, made life for them better.
Since then she hasn’t stopped working to provide a high level of well-being to the creatures she considers most fragile: animals. In her opinion, a person’s dignity can be measured by how they treat animals.
Her efforts have been recently recognized with a $1,000 scholarship by California’s Pet Life Style company, which honors people who are sensitive to the needs of animals and work for their well-being. Her Pawssible project was also selected as a finalist in Doral’s entrepreneurial contest initiative, Biznovator.
About two years ago, Stephanie became a U.S. ambassador to Venezuelan organization Huellitas de Amor, Pawprints of Love, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating awareness about animal abuse. Many people who help the organization own animal shelters, which despite having been created with noble intentions, are in deplorably impoverished and unhygienic states. In these shelters, animals live crammed on top of each other because of the small amount of available space.
“These people have nothing and yet they try to help animals who have been abandoned and left to face their own luck,” said Stephanie. “But if in Venezuela the current situation is bad for people, the one animals are facing is much worse.”
To help the organization Stephanie spends long hours selling homemade chocolates outside her school. The money she raises is then sent to Venezuela where, thanks to the exchange rate, it has a slightly higher value.
“With this money, we’ve been able to support vaccination brigades and been able to neuter street animals,” said Stephanie. “We’ve also improved the condition of many shelters so we could provide abandoned animals with an opportunity to live in a dignified way.”
Aizkell Fiore, president of the Huellitas de Amor, recognizes the value of Stephanie’s role.
“Stephanie carries out an important mission because she helps people visualize this problem in a country in which the government doesn’t provide any assistance,” Fiore said.
Stephanie has also pushed the campaign #SalvemosElPitbull on social media. The campaign raises awareness about a law in Venezuela that prohibits people from having pit bull dogs as new pets and requires those who have owned the dogs for years to keep them locked up.
“It’s an absurd law with extermination as it’s goal,” Stephanie said. “Pets are family members and you can’t obligate someone to give up their dog or keep it locked up without providing a valid argument. It’s simply hurtful and illogical.”
Stephanie has combined her volunteer labor with an internship at veterinary hospital Doral Centre Animal. She has assisted in two births, anal gland removal and has even been bitten by one of the centre’s most mischievous patients. Her experiences at the animal hospital have made Stephanie decide to focus her career aspirations on becoming a veterinarian. However, she has no plans of abandoning her work as an activist.
For now, her main project is the Pawssible initiative, a program integrating the rescue of abandoned animals with the inclusion of teenagers who have been bullied in school.
“I have a family member who was bullied in school and had a difficult time making friends later on in life,” she said. “And that’s why I wanted to create a program which integrated both: help to mistreated animals and kids or teenagers harassed at school.”
This proposal is based on a type of clinical psychological treatment known as Pet Therapy for which animals are used as a complement to therapeutic sessions.
“The love and affection that a patient receives from a pet can make the difference between being cured and being ill, and even being life and death,” said Dr. Chris Deleo of Boca Raton Hospital.
And it’s that interaction with animals that can speed the body’s production of endorphins, hormones responsible for feelings of happiness and confidence, and can serve as a useful tool in treatments of depression and anxiety.
“The project is still just a puppy,” Stephanie said about Pawssible. “But I hope in time it can grow, and to be able to take it from high school to the university level, and later on have it become a non-profit organization.”
“It’s a great satisfaction to know that what I do makes an impact,” she said. “But for me, the biggest reward is always going to be seeing the doggies wagging their tales full speed and hearing their little happy barks.”
Follow Estephani Cano on Twitter @StephanieCano.