Dear Maria,

Sometimes people walk into your life for reasons you don’t realize until it’s too late. I wanted to write this blog to thank you, Maria, for being my inspiration and motivation. You have brought so much light into the lives of the people you have met through your energy and positivity, and I’m sure we all only wish we could be half the person you are.
 From the moment I met you, you always gave me compliments and encouraged me to go after my dreams. You always told me how proud you were that I got into an academically prestigious high school and was working towards attaining a collegiate-athlete scholarship. As a young girl, I always looked for a person that I could aspire to be like, and you were one of my greatest inspirations. I never had the chance to thank you for being the role model I’ve always wished for, and I am forever grateful for your presence in my life. I have always looked at you like a second mother to me, and I hope to repay you by living up to your expectations and dreams, as one of your many children.
I hope I can one day emulate your bubbly spirit. Looking back, you were always the loudest person in the Gym screaming for Kenny, even though sometimes you didn’t know what you were cheering about. I remember one time, you were yelling, “C’mon Kenny put your hands up! Hands up! Defense! Defense!” I couldn’t help chuckling, because Kenny had the ball in his hands and was actually playing offense. You asked me, “Why are you laughing, c’mon yell at Kenny, he needs his hands up!” So I just attempted to join in for the cheer, knowing that it wasn’t the right call. But after seeing Kenny playing even harder, I realized it wasn’t about yelling or screaming to tell Kenny what to do, it was really all about how to do it. I learned through your enthusiasm that bringing the right energy to whatever you do, even if you are doing the wrong thing, can make all the difference. Your smile and spirit was contagious and made everyone in the Gym more energetic and excited to play. Through your energy I have learned to take on every task with high spirits. Although I am not always eager to do things, I try to imagine you screaming in the stands for me, and it gives me a boost to accomplish my tasks.
I remember when you graduated from the College of Marin. Kenny sent me pictures from the graduation, and I was thrilled by the excitement and pride. I remember you telling me everyday how you wanted to see Kenny graduate, and how you wanted me to do the same. You were always so eager to remind me to keep working hard at school because, “no one can take a college degree away from you”. Seeing you work hard to graduate, despite all of the challenges you faced, inspired us all to do the same. We haven’t and will not give up on your dreams for us to graduate, because you have instilled in us the dedication and motivation to achieve academic and athletic excellence. I have recently heard that Kenny has received a full scholarship to go to a University in Utah. I honestly can’t help but tear up at writing this because I am so proud of him for accomplishing this goal. I know you are looking down on him and praising him for his diligence and growth, and I too look at him as an inspiration for myself. Although I am not always around to tell Kenny, I want to thank him too for being like a brother to me by always encouraging me to work hard in my sports and academics. Ever since I met him, Kenny has been stuck in the Gym only to work towards his basketball and scholar goals, and I can’t begin to express my happiness for him to finally get to where he’s always wanted to be. I want to thank you Maria, for being the guidance we have all needed to get to where we are today.
 When I first heard about your passing, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for not being closer to you and Kenny in the last months of your life. I was off trying to work at school and volleyball, and I never gave back to you for helping to motivate and inspire me. I didn’t realize how big of a part of my life you were until you were gone. I was angry that someone took your life and didn’t realize your value. I never had so much hate for gun violence until your passing because I felt that your life didn’t deserve to end with something so heartless and cold. You are the definition of livelihood, and your passing just never seemed possible. I felt guilty when looking at your open casket because I didn’t cry then. But after leaving the funeral I understood why; when I saw you lying there it was not the same Maria I had always known. It was a different person because the person I knew was saved in my memories with contagious smiles, unforgettable laughter, and enthusiasm. Through reflection of your story and Kenny’s story, I have learned the importance of appreciating the people in my life that have influenced me positively in various ways. I want to thank you, Maria, for showing me the importance of gratitude.
I don’t believe I would have ever made it to the Olympics without these lessons, or even built up the courage to transfer from San Jose State University to the University of Miami. You have taught me to aspire to get better in everything I do, and I hope I can make you proud. You are a mother, teacher, and friend, and you will never be forgotten. Thank you, Maria, because I couldn’t have gotten here without you.

Savanah Leaf