FORT WORTH – Aida Martinez, an 18-year old high school student, gently placed a basket of graduation goodies on the living room floor and quietly waited for her family.

Among the gifts scattered across the carpet included a brand-new laptop computer donated by the Dallas Mavericks, hundreds of dollars in gift cards and $200 in cash, courtesy of Chime, the leader in mobile banking services.

“I waited until I got home to open my gifts,” the graduate said. “My sister was videoing. It felt like Christmas morning.”

Martinez, a 2020 graduate of Young Women’s Leadership Academy Fort Worth, was overwhelmed with gratitude, the magnitude of the moment never lost on her family.

After all, life for Martinez, her parents and younger sister was plagued with countless traumatic experiences that forever altered their lives. A surprise Gifting Day celebration from the Mavericks, she said, brought life full circle for her family Friday.

Just a few years ago, her life nearly came to an end.

“It was a miracle that I lived,” Martinez said. “I get to live the rest of my life with wisdom that so many people don’t realize until their deathbed.”

When Martinez was in the sixth grade her sister, Karen Rose, was diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer as a preschooler and it shook her world. A proud big sister, the stress shocked Martinez’s system and she started to endure her own medical issues.

Doctors eventually discovered that Martinez suffered from a rare heart condition that should have killed her long before it was discovered.

“My sister’s cancer ended up saving my life,” Martinez said. “I was an athlete and my doctor said most people with my heart condition never leave the NICU.

“Somehow, I survived, and then when my sister got sick I really struggled with it all. I thought it was stress and mental health issues. Turns out I had been living for 16 years with very terminal heart defects.”

As a sophomore in high school, Martinez underwent open heart surgery and went on to serve as class president at YWLA Fort Worth all four years.

“Truly the best thing that ever happened to me was nearly dying,” said Martinez, who will be attending Smith College in the fall. “It really was. I just got a whole new sense of gratitude, love for the world, and compassion for other people. It also helps me remember how many people really are rooting us on in this world like the Dallas Mavericks.”

Martinez is just one of hundreds of stories among 124 graduates that attend Young Women’s Preparatory Network (YWPN), a nonprofit all-girls school with three campuses in North Texas (Dallas, Grand Prairie and Fort Worth).

Many of the students, like Martinez, will become first-generation college students. And she said although the COVID-19 pandemic altered graduation plans, students were thankful to receive so much love from the Mavericks, Chime and the community.

Martinez said Friday marked a fresh start, new beginnings and a season of renewed hope for her family.

“I just have so much love for other people, love for the world, compassion for learning about others and helping them,” she said. “A huge wave of self-love hit me because so many years I had been in the depths of my thoughts because so many things happened with my sister and family.

“The last two days (with the Mavs) just kind of brought it all home.”

MARSHALL: ‘THIS IS ONE OF THE BEST THINGS TO EVER HAPPEN TO YOU’

All 124 graduates are on their way to college and the Mavs and their new jersey sponsor, Chime, came together this year to commemorate their outstanding achievements.

Academic scholarships of varying amounts have been earned by most of the graduates. The Dallas Mavericks, in conjunction with the Mavs Foundation, will also grant stipends to the class presidents at all three campuses. This will allow women to work at their unpaid internships during the summer and have financial support before they head to school.

Thursday morning, Dallas Mavs CEO Cynt Marshall and Chime CMO Melissa Alvarado had a virtual graduation ceremony for the young women in hopes of empowering the women who have already paved the way for their families and communities.

“This is one of the best things to ever happen to you,” Marshall shared with the grads. “You have to handle your business. Immerse yourself into this next phase of your life. Don’t act like you’re just a pilgrim passing through. You have a wonderful opportunity, enjoy it and embrace it.

“We have to bring people along. You will be the first, but you have to make sure there will be a second. That’s what the sisterhood is all about. That’s why I love the Young Women’s Preparatory Network. Sometimes you will not have a lot of sisters around, but look for them.”

At the conclusion of Thursday’s graduation ceremony, the Mavs’ CEO made a special announcement.

“You’re going to pick up a gift from the Mavs and Chime,” Marshall said. “I won’t go into it in detail, but I will tell you, it will be a welcome surprise. You will be screaming. You will love it. You will be crying. All of that.

“We know you are all going to college and it makes me want to cry to know that you have put in the work to do that. We also know that sometimes college presents a financial burden, and your families, it’s gonna put a little something on them. So, to lighten that load a little bit, we have a surprise for each one of you.”

Martinez said all night long she talked with her ‘sisters’ of the graduating class and anticipated what the surprise might entail. She said it was more than she could ever expect.

“When the pandemic hit, we didn’t know what would happen,” Martinez explained to Mavs.com. “Our principal said, ‘You’re still going to get a surprise from the Mavericks,’ but I’m thankful that none of us felt entitled to anything.

“We recognized our accomplishments, but all 38 of us are super grateful that’s been happening and has been afforded to us. We didn’t know what was happening.”

Under the bright sun and an aqua sky, the seniors finally had answers during a drive-through ceremony at their schools on Friday. The Mavs’ community and events teams worked to create a celebratory atmosphere, with a small staff to honor social-distancing guidelines.

Mavs Champ was on hand, plus a couple of ManiAACS as each student arrived to pick up their surprises. Teachers and school leaders stood in the background and waved pom poms to the beat of tears and cheers.

For the past several weeks, the Mavs and Chime had been shopping and preparing to spoil these young leaders with gift baskets tailored for each graduate.  The baskets included a Dell Latitude 7390 touch-screen laptop, $225 in gift cards, a Chime gift of $200 cash, $100 or more worth of college gear, and a staff-favorite book with an encouraging note from the staff person to each girl.

Each college basket is valued at a minimum of $1,375 for a total donation of more than $170,500 for these college-bound seniors.

Alvarado also included a special note from Chime to accompany the cash gift that said: “A few years ago you decided to embark on a very exciting journey,” she wrote. “You made a decision to make education a priority and a college degree an important goal in your life. You worked hard to get into the YWPN and then spent countless hours renewing your commitment to this program, studying for your Pre-AP and AP classes, developing your leadership skills and getting ready for college.

And now, the time has come for you to take the next step in your career. You are ready for college and ready to conquer a new and exciting stage in your life. You are going to do great and I cannot wait to hear about all the amazing things you will accomplish.”

MAVS STAFF JOIN FORCES TO ‘ADOPT’ GRADUATES

For the Mavericks, Marshall said COVID-19 presented some early challenges, but she was proud how her staff came together to make the surprises happen for all 124 students. Mavs employees adopted one, two – up to 10 students each – and were responsible for creating unique gifts for each student.

“I’m just blessed that NBC5 Today anchor Deborah Ferguson helped us make the connection between the Mavs and the schools,” said Marshall. “Last year we did something similar for 31 graduates at Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Fort Worth. This year we decided to surprise all three schools.”

Ferguson is a staunch advocate of the Foundation for the Young Women’s Leadership Academy of Fort Worth which supports YWLA, the first all-girls school in the Fort Worth ISD. She hosted Thursday’s commencement panel address with Marshall and Alvarado.

Marshall said the Mavericks were left overwhelmed and inspired after last year’s graduation and planned a similar event this year. Then social distancing requirements changed everything.

“We said, ‘We’re going to figure out how to get this done,’ ” Marshall said. “We had about 200 members of our staff on a call and we gave them an opportunity to adopt and invest in these young ladies.

“It was an overwhelming success. So many of our employees said yes, and they really dug in and made it special for these young women.”

The response by Mavs employees, along with community partners like Chime and school leaders at each school, reminded the Marshall of her “HASU” philosophy – Hook A Sister Up. She also had a special message for all the graduates.

“Don’t ever, ever give up,” Marshall said. “(I have endured) domestic violence as a child, suffered miscarriages, had a daughter that died, battled cancer. I could go on and on.

“Bad things do happen to good people. But accept adversity and never, ever give up. Remember things came to pass, they didn’t come to stay.”

It’s a reminder that Martinez said pierced her soul. She heard Marshall speak at last year’s event, but she said the message this year especially gripped her heart.

“After all I endured, I became a very strong advocate of self-love and compassion for others,” the teen said. “To be your best, you have to give your best to others. The Mavericks have reminded me of this.”

Martinez is a survivor — and a thriver. Now she is set to become the first person in her family to attend college.

She said: “I’m just so thrilled and full of gratitude because it will be my shot to make a difference in the world.”

LESSONS TO THE GRADS FROM CYNT MARSHALL, CEO OF THE MAVS

1. DO THE RIGHT THING. HAVE INTEGRITY.
There is a difference in doing things right and doing the right thing.

2. SHOW UP. Show up to different events and show up for people who need you in their life. Show up to things that may be uncomfortable for you. Maybe you’ve never gone to a networking event or certain places. Show up because that is where you’ll have your best experiences. You must be present to win. You never know who is looking at you.

3. SOMETIMES THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL IS A TRAIN. Bad things do happen to good people, but accept adversity and never, ever, ever give up. Remember things came to pass, they didn’t come to stay.

4. REMEMBER YOUR SISTERS. Remember the sisterhood. You have this sisterhood; you’ll have another one. Always be there for each other. I learned some of my valuable lessons about teamwork when I was in a sorority. We hung out…and I learned a song (named) ‘No Man Is An Island.’

We used to sing it every Monday night and I thought it was so corny, but now I realize what it meant. And the words say:
No man is an island,
No man stands alone,
Each man’s joy is joy to me,
Each man’s grief is my own.
We need one another,
So I will defend,
Each man as my brother,
Each man as my friend.

5. PRACTICE H.A.S.U: It stands for “Hook A Sister Up.” Sometimes you need to call your friends and say “I need you to hook me up” whatever it is. Always have someone that you can practice HASU moments with. Be there for each other.

6. TAKE CARE OF YOUR P.M.S: Your Physical, Mental and Spiritual health. You have to focus on all three of them every single day. All three of them really do matter and start at a very young age. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so make sure you’re in touch with how you’re doing and how you’re feeling.

7. DREAM BIG. FOCUS. HAVE BIG, BIG DREAMS. I’m 60 years old and I still have big dreams. I have dreams for my four children all who were adopted, and I have dreams for me. Have big dreams all the time and focus, so that you can achieve those.

 

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