Student takes gap year to grow nonprofit

Sabrina Dong

While most Redwood seniors are looking for roommates, researching sororities and fraternities and getting ready for their first year at college, senior Auz Zadoff is preparing for a year in the Panamanian jungles.

With a passion for travel and learning about new cultures, Zadoff will be embarking on a gap year in Panama to work with Earth Train and Global Student Embassy,  and expand his own nonprofit organization, Companamaeros, which focuses on activities like community outreach, permaculture and promoting compost. The name of the nonprofit derives from the the root “com” which means friend, the word “Panama” and the suffix “eros” which is an inclusive term. 

Zadoff and other volunteers visit a school in Panama
Zadoff and other volunteers visit a school in Panama

“I really thought I’d have the most typical college experience like everyone else. I’d join a frat in my freshman year maybe go into business or administration,” Zadoff said. “Then, after my first year down in Ecuador it kind of opened my eyes to what was important and what was not and I decided that I’d rather do good in my life than make a lot of money.”

Zadoff’s experiences in service trips with Global Student Embassy has helped shaped his decision. Over his high school career, he has participated in three 10-day trips in Latin America. During these trips, he and a group of students aided by guides and teachers from Redwood, worked with local students to plant gardens for reforestation and accomplish other projects to increase sustainability and strengthen the infrastructure of the country.

“I just love the sense of community being able to go into a country and having it be so open and so welcoming and just being a part of Latin America—it’s a very inclusive family,” Zadoff said.

In Panama, Zadoff hopes to build upon that sense of community while continuing to work on his nonprofit and help out in the forests of the Mamoni Valley Preserve.

“I’m going to be spending a whole year in a hammock or a tent. I will spend about half the year [in the jungle],”  Zadoff said. “There is one guide who’s been living there for two and a half years. His name is Mark and he runs the 10,000 acre preserve. I’ll be spending a lot of time with him and the rest of the time with just locals and indigenous people who live in there.”

According to Zadoff, Panama is called “La Puente de Las Américas,” or “The Bridge of the Americas” because it’s a narrow strip of land and is one of the only places where the Caribbean meets the Pacific, creating a unique ecosystem.

“What’s cool about Panama is that it’s one of 20 hotspots in the world. There are only 20 hotspots in the world which means that species there are endemic to that area, meaning if they go extinct, then they’re extinct everywhere,” Zadoff said.

Zadoff (far left) and friends sit on the back of a truck after working in Panama
Zadoff (far left) and friends sit on the back of a truck after working in Panama

Another key factor that played a role in Zadoff’s decision was his love for the Spanish language. Now completely fluent, Zadoff still reminisces about the first word he ever learned freshman year.

“Señor VP was my very first teacher. He taught me my first word freshman year: pero. I was so confused because sometimes he would be saying ‘but’ and sometimes he’d be saying ‘dog,’” Zadoff said, “He taught me my first words, and ever since I’ve just fallen in love with the language.”

Zadoff loves Spanish, so much so that he has acquired a tattoo on his hip that says, “Hoy sere mas humano que ayer, pero sigo siendo yo,” which means, “Today I will be more human than yesterday, but I will still be me,” in English.

Zadoff got the tattoo after one of his most memorable days in Latin America. After a long day of work, he and Señor VP went into the ocean and Zadoff had a revelation.

Me and VP we walked right into the ocean and we were just swimming and laying there and he asked me what day it is. He asked me what I would usually be doing—it was freshman year or sophomore year—I would be in chemistry class. He said, ‘Well this is what you could be doing instead’ and it really just opened my eyes,” Zadoff said. “Life’s really a choice about what I allocate my time to do.”