Today we’d like to introduce you to Maria Otero-Fernandez.
Maria, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
My name is Maria, and I am the founder of With Love Miami. I was born in Nicaragua, but my family immigrated to the United States in 1985, out of desperation from war, turmoil and poverty. Little Havana would soon become our new home and, with its charm, I would fall deeply in love with Miami. I love the warmth the sun offers our city, the many different cultures and the food from our native countries that give us nostalgic feelings and full bellies. Where else in the world could you drink a colada while playing dominoes, learn to dance salsa and eat a Jamaican patty at the beach all in one day! In Livan Hernandez’ voice, “I love you, Miami.”
With Love Miami started just like the Biggie Smalls’ song: “It was all a dream”. I was on vacation with my aunt in Nicaragua when she asked me to join her in distributing donated baby clothes to the babies in the maternity ward at a nearby hospital. What I saw would change my life forever. There were women standing in hallways having contractions without any place to sit, women sharing beds and not one baby bassinet in sight. My aunt explained that many of the mothers and babies had little to nothing and the donations would come as a huge help.
At the time, I was a recent first-time mother, and I kept having flashbacks of my labor experience. Around 9:45 am on a beautiful Monday in Miami, my water broke; the sun was bright and shining, there was plenty of the usual traffic and Power 96 was playing on the radio as we headed to South Miami Hospital. The care and attention I received were beyond exceptional (side note: I’m not associated with any hospital!). The nurses were so kind and nurturing, and, when I was about to leave, they gave me a black diaper bag filled with essentials my baby would need for the first few months. I found that gesture so beautiful even though I had a huge luggage of items for my son (first-time mom problems). My own birthing experience, besides the actual labor of course, was amazing- nothing like what my own eyes were witnessing in Nicaragua.
The night we came back from the hospital with my aunt, I could not sleep. In fact, even after I got back to Miami, my heart still felt heavy; something was tugging at me and I just could not figure it out. One night, I had a dream that I was traveling the world helping kids and I could feel my heart bursting with joy and happiness. I woke up that night with a smile and decided I needed to do something! I began to recall my whole experience and remembered the bag I received from the hospital when I gave birth. If families in Latin America received one of these bags, it could help mothers and babies dramatically, even in the toughest situations.
Through networking, and people I like to call my angels, I was able to create With Love Miami (WLM), a small but mighty nonprofit organization operated by volunteers (withlovemiami.org). We are a fund at the Coral Gables Community Foundation who serves as our 501(c)3. We fundraise from January to May in order to assemble care packages for mothers and newborns in low income regions in Latin America and the Caribbean. We were able to send 100 bags to help Nicaragua in 2018 and another 100 bags to Venezuela in 2019. We look forward to sending another 100 bags to Guatemala in 2020 and continuing from there. The goal is to reach as many moms and babies as possible- the more funds we receive, the more we can send.
In addition to the baby bags, we also serve our Miami community. It is important for us to show that our love can be seen in our own neighborhoods as well as beyond borders. We help feed the homeless, host fun activities for children living in shelters, run back-to-school drives, collect clothes for adults suffering from mental illness, pay for underprivileged families to wash and dry their clothes, and so much more! We strive to show our love for our neighbors no matter how far, how difficult or how impossible it may seem. When you do things with love, nothing can stand in your way.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
This road has been anything but smooth! From the very start and to this day, people doubt our cause and will say comments like, “You won’t get too far,” or “People just aren’t that nice anymore.” These comments are hard to ignore, you can either listen and agree, or listen and say, “WATCH ME!” WLM is run by volunteers, all of whom work full-time jobs and have many other things on their plates, yet they find a way to place everything on hold to ensure our message of love gets heard near and far. As I like to say, as long as there are caring people in the world, we will keep working to help as many families as possible.
We’d love to hear more about your organization.
We raise funds to create diaper bags filled with essentials for babies in rural areas of Latin America and the Caribbean. We also serve our communities by volunteering and showing love the best way we know how. We like to help communities in Miami who sometimes feel left out. For example, this past year, we adopted a pre-kindergarten class in Richmond Heights; this community has been described as a tough neighborhood to live in.
We collected all the school supplies requested by the teachers, including book bags for each child. The teachers’ and parents’ reactions brought tears to our eyes. Many of them expressed how grateful they were as they had other children to buy supplies for and did not know how they were going to afford it all. Through their tears, the teachers expressed to us that nothing like this had ever happened before. What sets us apart is that there are no strings attached, we are an organization of sharing love, kindness and compassion-none of which come with a price.
Degrees, certificates, promotions do not come close to the proudest moment of my career when my son asked, “Mommy, can I run With Love Miami one day? I want to help people just like you do.” I might have a tear or two in my eyes as I write this…
Children to me are the window to the future; if we want to see what it looks like, we have to take a close look at our children. They are our future leaders, politicians, policy writers, and activists. Teaching them about the world’s inequalities and the need for kindness and love can create such a change for our future.
So, what’s next? Any big plans?
Our future looks bright! For our Beyond Borders initiative, we wish to increase the amount of bags sent out for each trip. We would also like to increase the amount of items to include medicine, diaper cream and other essential needs.
Every year, we learn more and connect more with our Miami community. Learning from our communities helps us evaluate and create new programs that target their needs. We hope that Coins for Compassion (the laundry assistance initiative we started last year) can be done at least once a month since we received amazing feedback from our community members. We are also aiming to create more activities for the kids at Chapman Partnership Shelter, as well as more events to raise funds and connect communities for a great cause.
- $60.00 Sponsors a filled With Love Miami bag/Including shipping
- $200.00 Sponsors a Coins for Compassion Event at a Laundromat
- $600.00 Sponsors a WLM adopt-a-classroom
- $2,000.00 Sponsors a Fundraiser Event
- $6,000 Sponsors ALL 100 Bags to Guatemala/Including shipping
- Website: www.withlovemiami.org
- Email: contact@withlovemiami.
- Instagram: with_love_miami
- Facebook: withlovemiami
- Twitter: withlovemiami