Maria D'Angelo (center, in red) with people she's helped: (from left) Christopher Rojas, Monica Meza Guillern with daughter, Natalie (on lap), Jasmin Romero and Valentino Carrasco
08/08/2013 at 10:30 AM EDT
Growing up, Jasmin Romero fantasized about one day attending college to study nursing. But when her father was forced to get a kidney transplant, she nearly gave up on her dream.
"All our family's money went to pay for his medications," says Romero, 19. "College just didn't seem like a possibility."
And that's when Maria D'Angelo stepped in. For the past 20 years, she and her Children's Lifesaving Foundation
have worked to transform the lives of tens of thousands of low-income kids and their families in Southern California, including Romero whose college tuition she’s paying.
"College is my reality now," Romero says. "I owe my world to Maria."
Funny thing is, D’Angelo, 68, never intended to start a charity. But all that changed one afternoon in 1992 while volunteering at a homeless shelter when she met an 8-year-old boy who told her that he'd never attended school because his mother couldn't afford to get him a physical.
"So I took him to a doctor," recalls D'Angelo, "and before long I started taking other kids to dentists and dermatologists."
One act of kindness quickly blossomed into another. Each time D'Angelo discovered a new need, she found a way to meet it. Since 1993, together with her own two children – Sean, 41, and Francesca, 44 – along with hundreds of volunteers and financial donors, she's provided medical and dental care for kids, tutoring for their schoolwork and tuition money for college.
She's moved homeless kids and parents out of shelters and into new apartments and run summer camps in the mountains and beaches of Malibu, attended by over 50,000 inner-city youth.
For Valentino Carrasco, 11, who has been attending camp since he was a baby, the opportunity to attend summer camp has been life-changing.
"I never got to see the ocean," says Carrasco. "But at the camp, they teach me surfing. I love it. I think about camp all the time and I get excited about summer. And they tutor us for school. I get good grades because of them."
Helping kids see opportunities in life is part of the reason she reaches out, says D'Angelo, a former teacher.
"I arrived in this country filled with so much hope," says D'Angelo, who immigrated to America on a freighter with her family from Italy at age 14. "We were searching for a better life. And that's what I'm trying to pass on to these kids."
It's work that D'Angelo says inspires her.
"I really love these kids," she says. "I get to know them. I tell the children life is beautiful and we all have to do something with our lives. It doesn't have to be something big, but just small acts of kindness you can do every day are the things that matter."
Know a hero? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine