The most important factor in a young person’s life is whether or not they have positive adult relationships. Nobody knows this better than Maria Gomez.

Maria joined her family in the United States after being born in Guatemala when she was in second grade. A transition which on its own is challenging, but coupled with her father’s arrest and later his deportation caused Maria to get angry. This trauma had profound effects on her, as at an early age she began to have run-ins with the law. This trouble continued for a prolonged stretch and easily could have endured if something did not change in her life.

Enter Touching Miami With Love, a Miami-based non-profit, and their site director Wanda Ashworth, a mentor and role model to Maria that she lovingly refers to as Ms. Wanda. Maria has been connected with the non-profit organization, that works with a large immigrant population, since she arrived in the United States. It was once she began getting into legal trouble when it became clear that Wanda was an adult in Maria’s life that she could count on. “She saw me grow up, she is always there for me. Anytime I need help she is there and when my family needs help she is there. When I was going through that phase of getting in trouble with the law she was there with me, she would take me to court and speak for me,” Maria said. “She doesn’t just do her job, she is not just a director, she is like a mother.”

Wanda has played an important role in Maria’s life and now years after her legal troubles have passed, Maria is following her mentor’s lead. She began volunteering with the program before entering high school and worked for them during after school and summers. Now, at 18-years-old, Maria has transitioned into an even more impactful role, a coach and mentor through Up2Us Sports.

Maria wanted to become a coach through Up2Us Sports because of her burgeoning passion for working with kids. She feeds off of their excitement and passion and credits them with helping her stay out of trouble. “The kids motivated me. Watching them play, smile, and hug me motivated me not to give up and to get better and to change,” she said. “I wanted to change and do something that matters and my passion is kids so working there [at Touching Miami With Love] has helped me.”

While Maria still deals with the challenges and hardships she has faced, and continues to face in her life, she has found a passion and a home. Now that she has been empowered and given the tools to leverage sport to promote positive life skill development she has the capability to help so many others facing similar situations within her community.

While Maria is not completely sure what the future holds, after finishing high school this year she knows that she wants to continue to work with kids and further her education. She is hoping to coach a second year with Up2Us Sports and one day plans to takeover for her mentor Wanda as a director for Touching Miami with Love. “Ever since I was younger I would always say ‘I want to be Ms. Wanda, be the director of that program,’” she said. “She [Ms. Wanda] tells people that I will be the director one day.”