Maria Hernandez is changing lives. She runs her own business, Dream Hope & Believe Therapy. It’s a one-stop clinic where children with special needs, from four months to 21 years old, receive occupational, physical and speech therapies.
“What I’m doing now is my passion – is my life. I breathe this. I live this,” Maria said.
Maria truly lives her passion today. However, her life was radically different before her youngest daughter inspired her to graduate from Keiser University and become an entrepreneur.
Years ago, Maria was a working wife and mom of two. She had a successful career in the restaurant industry. She began washing dishes and mopping the floor at a restaurant when she came to Miami from Venezuela at 18 years old. Maria learned to speak English. Within a few years, she worked her way up to managing 200 employees, which also meant working many extra hours.
The Hernandez family’s lives took an unexpected turn in 2003. Maria and her husband’s son, Alexander, was 13 and their daughter, Alejandra, was 10 when their youngest daughter, Gabriela, was born with Down syndrome: “It was very difficult for me and my family because having a child with special needs is something that no one expects in life.”
Maria stayed at home with Gabriela for the next two years. The baby received nine hours of weekly occupational, physical and speech therapy inside their home. At four months old, Gabriela was taught to lift her head and turn over. As she progressed, she learned more difficult tasks. Soon, Gabriela was pedaling a tiny trike. While Gabriela mastered new skills, Maria witnessed the power of occupational therapy.
That’s when Maria spotted a commercial for Keiser University. She said she knew it would be feasible for her to return to her full-time job in the restaurant industry while attending school because of Keiser’s one-class-per-month schedule.
Maria enrolled in the Associate of Science in Occupational Therapy Assistant degree program at Keiser University’s Miami Campus.
Her entire family supported her return to school at 40 years old. Maria refers to her husband as her pillar who had dinner ready when she arrived home from school and took care of the kids while she worked nights. Alexander and Alejandra, who were teenagers at the time, proofed her English papers. And Gabriela was the motivation behind it all: “Having her in my life is the biggest inspiration to be able to do and continue doing what I do.”
Maria said she also had a large support system in the university consisting of students, faculty and staff. Her admissions counselor helped her decide to major in occupational therapy. Her academic counselor guided her through school, and the occupational therapy program director served as a mentor. Two years later, Maria graduated with honors: “I went to Keiser University to achieve my dream and all these doors of opportunity opened for me.”
Maria combined her two passions: occupational therapy and helping children with special needs: “What is fascinating about the occupational therapy field is that there will always be something different to teach children with special needs throughout their development.”
Maria began working as an occupational therapist assistant. She created and directed an outdoor recreational therapy program at a ranch for children with special needs. That’s when Maria’s older children were introduced to occupational therapy. They attended each week and helped where they could.
Alexander said, “I’ve always had that nurturing side of me ever since my little sister was born.” He remembers therapists saying Gabriela was “too difficult to work with” and calling her “defiant.” Instead he believes, with the right approach, anything is possible.
At 21 years old, he went back to school and enrolled at Keiser University to study occupational therapy: “I’m doing it for my sister. I’m doing it for the kids who get told ‘no’ or the families who are told that they can’t do anything else with their child. I want to be that difference and do my best and never say ‘no.’”
Alejandra also shares her family’s passion. Immediately after graduating high school she also enrolled at Keiser’s occupational therapy assistant degree program at the university’s Miami campus. The siblings began and graduated at the same time with an Associate of Science in Occupational Therapy Assisting in 2015.
“I love the ability to connect and to feel like I’m not only making a difference in the child’s life, but also in the parents’ lives as well,” Alejandra said.
The family values a strong work ethic and a sense of a responsibility for their community. “My greatest pride is that they are doing something not only for themselves, but also to make a difference in others,” Maria said.
When Maria opened her own business in 2016, she was honored to hire her older children as part of the team: “They are spectacular colleagues with whom I can brainstorm and find solutions. It’s impressive to see the natural ability they have for the work they do.”
Alejandra is an occupational therapist assistant. She works with children in one of their two locations. Alejandra said her mom continues to inspire her: “She has that ability to maintain a boundary between being a mom, being a leader and being a boss.”
The siblings treat their young clients the way they would like their sister, Gabriela, to be treated.
Alexander works as an occupational therapist assistant and manager of their main location. The business also hosts Keiser University occupational therapy students who are doing their clinicals. Alexander is also the field instructor for the students. He prepares every new intern with an important message: “You really have to be passionate about what you do and really love what you do in order to succeed. The kids know when your heart is in it. Families know when your heart is in it.”
The Hernandez family has a heart for helping others and it begins at home. Maria explained her daughter, Gabriela, was one of the reasons behind the name Dream, Hope & Believe Therapy. Every accomplishment in therapy with Gabriela was first a dream, then a hope, until it became a belief. Maria applied the same principles to her business: “I dreamed it. I had the hope to truly be able to make a difference and I believe that what I am doing is making a big difference in my kids, their families and my community.”
Today, their family success story has come full circle. Maria and her children are featured in their own Keiser University commercial. It was shot on location at their main clinic in South Florida. Maria hopes others who watch it will realize they too can attain their dreams: “I put this in God’s hands, and I realized this is my life’s purpose.”
“Education is power. If I am going to keep changing the world around me, I must have the power,” Maria said.