Our Heart and Our Why: Maria Lujan
Written by Brianna Canty
Opportunity is merely the chance at change. Without action, without effort, without dedication, it can slip through your fingers like grains of sand. It can be squandered…or, it can be seized. When opportunity came knocking in the small town of Coronel Bogado, Paraguay, Maria Lujan grabbed tight and didn’t let go.
“ESO ES PARA MI.”
In 2016, Maria was eleven years old and in the fifth grade. On the November morning where this story began, she was nervous, a bag with soccer cleats in her hand. She had snuck out of class because a group of young women from the United States had come to speak at the high school. It was meant to be for the older students—an outreach event that included a soccer practice, distribution of donated uniforms and gear, and an opportunity for the girls from America to give back. But this didn’t stop Maria. She thought, “Eso es para mi.” Eyes filled with determination and with her mother’s support behind her, Maria snuck into that auditorium.
What transpired after Maria’s decision is now the heart at the center of Girls Soccer Worldwide (GSW). She is the torchbearer for change in Coronel Bogado, the face of progress in her community, the dreamer who carries with her every girl who thinks: “Look at her. I can do that, too.” Six years have passed and she is just as determined, just as passionate, as she was when Walter Pratte first met her.
A Bond Forged, A Promise Fulfilled, A Journey Begun
Looking back on that moment now, both Maria and Walter agree their bond was instantaneous. In that indescribable way, it was two souls reuniting, a kindred connection. “I don’t know how to say it,” Walter remembers. “That feeling. El sentimiento. Un instincto.” Maria calls the connection something that had never happened before. The instinct Walter felt that day in 2016 told him that Maria, and her family, were who GSW had traveled to Paraguay for. He had come back to Coronel Bogado to keep the promise he’d made, and he left inspired.
The scope of what GSW funds, supports, and encourages was born from this first trip to Paraguay. Our mission is to empower girls to rise out of poverty through sports, education, and leadership opportunities. As Aaron Sorkin argues in his show The West Wing, “Education is the silver bullet.” But when basic needs in life go unmet—if young women do not have food to eat, clean water to drink, clothes to wear, bathrooms to use, or the financial stability to stay in school—then this mission is for naught.
In Paraguay, the completion of upper secondary school for girls is around 60%, a 25% drop compared to the completion of primary school. Multiple factors contribute to this difference, not the least of which is poverty. Girls bear the heaviest burden in these rural, struggling communities. When families are not able to put food on the table nor a roof over their heads, education cannot be a priority.
Walter, Pamela, and the first GSW Ambassadors saw these conditions first-hand when they visited Maria’s home in 2016. Maria and her family shared a small house with two rooms. It had a sagging wooden roof and brick walls, with wooden planks lashed together above a hole in the ground for their bathroom and shower. The girls understandably were moved—not just by the reality they were witnessing, but by the warmth, love, and openness of the Lujan family. It was then and there the Ambassadors decided they needed to build Maria a true bathroom.
Since that first trip, supporting the “full” girl has become one of the five core tenets of GSW. Through the Ambassador program, the girls have their school lunches paid for, can afford to pursue higher education, and are empowered to give back to their communities. The financial burdens families faced that would have previously forced girls to quit school are now alleviated through monetary support from GSW.
Be the Change You Want to See
Maria’s mother only finished second grade. For much of her life, she struggled and suffered, focused solely on surviving. This was her life; this was also the life of Walter’s mother and countless other women in places all around the world. But that was not going to be her daughter’s life. Maria’s mother fought against the social stigmas that existed in her community and allowed her daughter to play soccer. She supported her, even when it wasn’t accepted or encouraged. It wasn’t easy. Nevertheless, she wanted more for Maria and she fought for her daughter to have the chances she never did.
The support of her mother is mirrored by the community of Coronel Bogado. People who pass her on the street and the teachers at her school all ask Maria how the GSW projects are going. They encourage her not to stop because, “what she’s doing is incredible.” And yet, creating change in any environment is uncomfortable. When you push against the status quo, when you start striving for more, when you sidestep corruption on the path to progress, not everyone will be behind you.
At the start, there were some distant family members and people around Maria who didn’t support her or what she was doing. They criticized her for going against the grain, for playing with the boys, for breaking free. There were moments when Maria wanted to quit. It’s far easier to stay in your lane, to occupy the small space societal expectations create for you. But she didn’t and she hasn’t. What has kept her going, what has motivated her in times of struggle when the odds seem insurmountable? “Don’t allow the critics to win.” As Walter added, “If she stops, they win.”
I Am the Captain of My Fate
Today, Maria is 17 years old. She is confident, driven, and exceedingly kind. Traveling back and forth from the United States, Maria has become the bridge between the Ambassadors in California and the Ambassadors in Paraguay. And she isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
Maria and Walter recently traveled to Santiago, Argentina on a research mission, looking at potential locations for a new Ambassador program. The goal is to create a leadership group of local girls, helping to pave a path for them to achieve their dreams, and organize a space for them to play. Maria was floored by the poverty in Santiago, the lack of clean drinking water, and the need for medical professionals. With the hardships she witnessed at the forefront of her mind, Maria is committed to leveraging what she’s learned through GSW to help this rural town.
Amazingly, all that Maria does and dreams is for others. At university, she wants to study medicine and become a pediatrician, traveling to communities similar to her own and providing vital healthcare. “Puede ayudar en mi comunidad,” Maria explains, knowing that by studying medicine, she can help whoever is in need. Her driving force, her motivating mantra, is, “How can I help?”
Just like Maria made her own opportunity that day in 2016, she continues to make opportunities for herself and for her community. She truly embodies the phrase, “Change one. Change thousands.” Maria harbors hope for her future, a future ultimately changed by GSW. She is now confident, she believes in herself, and she has opportunities that she never would have had before. And yes, GSW helped. But Maria forged her own destiny. She saw what GSW had to offer and said, “Eso es para mi.” She is our heart; she is our why.
Maria’s future is bright and the sky is the limit.
We can’t wait to see what she does next.
Change One. Change Thousands. Powered by Girls Soccer Worldwide!
To learn more about Girls Soccer Worldwide and what we do, click here. Want to see what we’re working on? Check this project out!
To hear more about Maria’s story and her incredible work in Coronel Bogado, watch this amazing video!