Team Member Spotlight: Maria Solon

Maria Solon works as an Initiative Support Manager with Keys to Independence, a program that eliminates barriers and helps youth in foster care obtain their driver’s license.

For those of us that speak English fluently, learning how to drive and navigating the process at the DMV can be stressful enough. Now imagine if Spanish was your first language and, as a youth in foster care, you are lacking many of the important documents required to obtain your license. These are some of the barriers that Maria helps teens in foster care overcome every single day.

Maria Solon was born in Chicago, Illinois but, at the tender age of five, her family returned to live near grandparents in Puerto Rico, where aunts, uncles, and cousins abounded.

“It was so much fun! Family was everywhere and cousins lined the street. I would visit one house, and slowly family would trickle in until you realized you were surrounded by 15 people. Suddenly it had become a party,” Maria laughs of her childhood.

Another fond memory: “I would grab my brothers and sister, and we would bike down the road and pick up our cousins on the way. By the time we were done, there would be a group of 20 of us biking towards a mountain to spend the day hiking.

As Maria grew older, she often questioned what was next for her on the horizon. Like many teenagers approaching their college years, she wasn’t quite sure what path she wanted to pursue. Opportunities for a career were limited on the island, and she wanted more for herself than the employment struggles she watched her family face every day.

After attending college for two years to obtain a degree in Business Administration, Maria knew her interests lay elsewhere. The military seemed like the perfect way to explore opportunities beyond the island. What Maria never expected, however, was the specialty she would choose.

“I became an Ammunitions Specialist,” she explains. “The training was intense. My days were spent counting ammunition, developing a deep knowledge about each kind that existed, and detonating explosives. I’ll never forgotten the day that I held my first bomb. It was terrifying!”

Her time spent in the army was memorable in more ways than one. During one of her ammunition trainings, she met the man she would soon call her husband. Four months later, the two lovebirds had a marriage license in hand and a wedding under their belts. One deployment to Iraq, a pregnancy, and a move back to Puerto Rico later — the pair now calls Florida home.

Maria went back to school to complete her education, earning a bachelors degree in Criminal Justice. She knew she wanted to help people and, after being introduced to social work, she found her purpose in working with kids and families. But, as many know, social work can be heart-wrenching work. The discovery that she couldn’t fix every families’ problems was disappointing and stressful.

After learning about a growing pilot program called Keys to Independence, Maria chose to transition to working with teens. Her efforts, along with the rest of the Keys team, has helped the program flourish. Since inception: 203 kids have earned their driver’s license; hundreds more are enrolled and progressing towards earning a license; and the program obtained permanent funding from the Florida Legislature during the 2018 Legislative Session.

Her favorite part of the job? Celebrating the youth’s success, of course!

“When they get their license, it’s so exciting! I feel as happy as they do when they get that license in hand. It’s a major milestone for them!”

To find out more about Keys to Independence, please visit www.keystoindependencefl.org