Nina Zanella has spent her life serving as a positive force in the world. If a person or an animal is in distress or a situation desperately needs to be fixed, Nina doesn’t call for help; she is the help. She has over 25 years of experience working for non-profit organizations and has also done extensive volunteer work. She has driven AIDS patients to their doctor appointments, sat with dying patients in hospices, and helped protect animal rights through her efforts with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). And her six pet cats—including one that’s blind, one with a neurological tic, and one with only three legs—are living proof that she sometimes takes her work home with her.
“I tried working for a for-profit company from 1987 to 1989 and it was the worst two years of my professional life,” Nina says. “But I think I had to experience that to know my true calling. I believe the answer to all the strife and hatred in the world is if everyone can just realize we’re all born with a purpose, and that purpose is to make things better. It’s pretty simple. We just have to love and care for each other and do good works. I’ve believed that ever since I was a little girl.”
Nina grew up in Rhode Island but has visited Miami regularly since 2001. In 2019, she relocated to the area and began working as the office manager for the Deering Estate Foundation. It didn’t take long for Nina to recognize the importance of the Deering Estate. “The minute those gates open and you walk down that path, you’re taken to a different place,” she says. “It’s like this beautiful jewel in Palmetto Bay. I think people are very loyal and they love to be there.”
The Deering Estate Foundation is a non-profit entity focused on enhancing the estate in all ways. That includes maintaining the houses, preserving the artwork, writing grants for cultural programs or archeological studies, and organizing popular events such as the Annual Deering Seafood Festival. But when COVID disrupted the world in 2020, the foundation’s work became more crucial than ever. The Executive Director left, live events including the seafood festival were cancelled, and membership dwindled. Luckily for the Deering Estate, the help they desperately needed was already on the property.
“I knew what I had to do to keep everyone somewhat employed,” Nina says. The foundation applied for a PPP loan, ran a membership campaign, and held virtual events instead of live ones. Bolstered by Nina’s hard work, the foundation helped Deering Estate survive and thrive. “We turned it around, and they asked me if I wanted to be executive director,” she says. “It was unanimous, and here I am.”
Nina humbly describes the Deering Estate Foundation as “just a little microcosm of caring people,” but for the many Village residents who hold the Deering Estate near and dear to their hearts, Nina and her staff are heroes for the loving attention they give to one of Palmetto Bay’s most cherished sanctuaries. “This is the first non-profit job I’ve had that’s not directly human services, but in a way, it actually is,” Nina explains. “When someone can bring their children to the estate and let them run around and feel safe, or when a person comes and they’re grieving somebody and they can sit and find solace, or an older person comes here for part of their daily exercise routine, that’s providing a human service.”
Nina can identify with those feelings firsthand because Deering Estate has the same therapeutic effect on her. “You go and sit on that boat basin and you look out over the water and you hear the manatee come up for air, and you realize what an amazing place this is. I feel very blessed.”