On any given weekday afternoon, Maria can be found leading a conversation circle, creating art or playing with preschoolers at a bilingual D.C. charter school. She works as an afterschool associate, tasked with taking care of the children and continuing their learning after the school day is over.

“I love being with the kids, playing with them. You learn a lot from them,” said Maria, a beginner English student at the Carlos Rosario School.

Maria has dedicated two decades to educating young people. Hailing from El Salvador, in the 1990s she worked as a kindergarten teacher at a school in her community in La Unión, and was quickly promoted to assistant principal. She eventually became the principal, and was in charge of more than 300 students’ education.

She was drawn to the field thanks to a first grade teacher who inspired her to learn. “I decided then that I would become a teacher so that I too can share my knowledge and love of learning with others,” Maria said.

In a place where many youths are affected by violence, Maria was instrumental in the creation of her town’s first high school. She worked with community members –the mayor, a priest, a doctor and the school’s parents—to get the funds, the materials and the know-how to build the school.

At first, the labor was on a volunteer basis. Parents and teachers put together the resources to get the program going. Teachers dedicated extra hours to educating the students. All their efforts resulted in a class of 50 graduates.

Opening a high school is no small feat, but Maria did not stop there. In 2006, the school still did not have any computers for students to learn. Once again, she used the power of community to make it happen. Between parents and the town government, they were able to collect enough funds to buy 60 computers and build a center.

Despite these achievements, the situation in the country drove her to leave. She wanted a better life for her 16-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. Her husband, a U.S. citizen, sponsored them and they moved their lives to Washington, D.C.

Maria started English classes at the Carlos Rosario School only a few months after arriving to the U.S. Within a year, she was able to get her job at the charter school with the help of Student Services employee Daniela Ayala.

Daniela said: “Speaking to her I knew she would be a good candidate because of her commitment and desire to teach. She expressed so clearly her passion for education.”

She is excited to be back in the classroom “making a direct impact in the lives of the children and parents,” she said. “I love working with children because of the sense of purpose and sincerity that they bring into my life.”