VALRICO — The first pictures and television footage of Haiti's earthquake were so different from the tranquil compositions and smiling models Alexis Vazquez usually photographed.
Moved by the tragic scenes, the high school junior decided to donate an American Express gift card she had received for her birthday to relief efforts.
Still, the one-time donation didn't seem like enough. She wanted to do something bigger. Something that would be on-going.
She took inventory of what she had to offer. In school, she was the student to go to if you wanted a professional picture. She already had her own business cards.
Then the idea came.
Why not donate a portion of all her proceeds from her small photography business to victims of world tragedies?"
She decided to call it the Sonrisa Project, and nearly a year after the Haitian tragedy — Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary — the 17-year-old still strives to help others
In Spanish sonrisa means smile, and in a way, Alexis always has looked to bring a smile to the faces of those less fortunate.
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Her philanthropy began at the early age of 7 when she visited her cousins in Cuba and left behind her Gameboy and Barbies after a two-week visit. Later in elementary school, she journaled the big difference between her world and theirs.
"They cannot eat what they want and buy what they want," she wrote.
As she grew older her compassion would later inspire her participation in projects like the Art Club's Memory Project at Bloomingdale High School. The object was to create a hand-drawn portrait from a photograph of an orphaned boy in El Salvador.
After studying her subject she strove to capture his innocence in colored pencil. Her labor of love eventually produced the desired memory she sought.
Finally the portrait was finished and sent to the young boy. A photo was later sent to Alexis of him happily holding her picture.
What made her cry was his hopeful smile.
Like the orphan's innocence she strives to reveal the true spirit of her model's culture and personality in her photography
"I want people to see that there is a story behind each photograph, that each photograph has a purpose," Alexis said. "If you study my photographs long enough, you'll find out that my subjects have personalities that I capture through the lens."
As her artistic skill developed, art teacher Diana Speedy and photography teacher Heather Hanks looked on and guided her. Alexis currently serves as the Art Club president and assistant photo editor of the school's yearbook while maintaining a weighted grade point average of 5.0. As a creative outlet she also began Alexis Marie Photography, mainly shooting photos of her classmates.
"This young woman is dedicated to incorporating the arts in her life and using her talents and abilities in a positive and selfless way," Speedy said.
Her talent has also received special distinctions. Last year her surreal painting Home is Where the Art Is got the honor of being displayed in the Salvador Dalí Museum. It's a piece in which she painted a variety of symbols representing her interests and goals.
"I most love the girl painting the sky," Speedy said. " Alexis is that girl — reaching high and wanting to include art in whatever she does."
Most recently, Alexis created a short film explaining the Sonrisa Project. She used her own pictures and set them to Michael Jackson's song Man in the Mirror.
In the film, Alexis implores viewers to make a difference.
"You have two feet, you have two hands, you have eyes, you have ears, you have a voice. More importantly than anything you have a voice and you can do anything you put your mind to. I'm working towards that myself and I know that if we all work together, and believe in each other, then together, we can do anything."
The video was entered into the Hillsborough County level of the PTA Reflections Program which challenges students to create art inspired by a specific theme. Bloomingdale High School media specialist Nancy Harris said Alexis' entry stood out to the judges.
"She had a real passion for her charity," said Harris. "When we got through seeing the DVD we looked at each other and said 'Wow,' and then we watched it again."
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Aside from her awards she maintains a keen interest in various charities.
"Her eyes glow when she finds a new organization," said her mother, Maria Johnson.
At the end of October she got the idea to participate in the Trick or Treat for UNICEF project with her friends and raised more than $200.
Future projects include helping Amnesty International and Operation Christmas Child.
She has also considered doing portraits for local foster children. When she finishes high school she plans to major in fine arts with a focus on photography.
One of her goals is to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, but she holds a bigger dream in her heart.
"When I ask myself what I want most, the answer is I just want to be happy and make other people happy, too," Alexis said. "I want to see as many sonrisas as I can."
Belinda Kramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.