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In 2008, at age 23, LaVita Rodriguez ’15, ’17 was paralyzed in a car accident. That transformative moment led her to change her outlook on life.

Today, Saint Leo University’s core values are an integral part of her. “I am a true believer,” she said of the core values such as community and responsible stewardship. “We studied that constantly. The core values guide me in life: I use them to stay on the right path and help others as a part of fulfilling both my personal and professional goals.”

LaVita in cap and gownAfter she graduated from high school, she worked for a law firm. “Something in me told me to go back to school,” she said. “That led to Saint Leo; you just get so much out of higher education because it provides you with the ability to make positive changes in the world around you.”

She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in business with a concentration in management in 2015 through the Center for Online Learning. She completed her MBA in December 2016 and officially will receive her degree on April 29.

The accident and her experience at Saint Leo fostered a desire to give back to her community. Rodriguez now volunteers at Tampa General Hospital (TGH) in pediatrics. It is the hospital where she was treated following her life-changing accident. “I want to give back to the hospital that saved my life that night in March [2008],” she said.

“Volunteering is my way of showing appreciation and gratitude for life and the doctors and nurses who continue to keep me healthy so that I may continue to pursue my dreams and spend time with my supportive family and close friends.”

Rodriguez is at TGH with the pediatric patients weekly. “I’m there to alleviate stress and loneliness that have the potential to generate anxiety and depression,” she said. “When the kids are there by themselves, giving them positive stimulation helps them cope with the unfortunate situation they are experiencing.”

She also takes care of the physicians and nursing staff who took care of her. “I bring them cake pops as a small gesture of my unending gratitude,” she said, laughing. “And who doesn’t love cake?”

Her love of children extends beyond the hospital setting. She has several nieces and nephews who want her undivided attention when she is not volunteering or studying. She is prepping for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and plans to attend law school so that she may “give children a voice” as a human rights, family, and health care attorney. “I believe it will be incredibly gratifying to help our future generations live a happier and healthier life by bridging gaps that have the potential to deteriorate one’s quality of life,” she said.

Rodriguez hopes to take her quest for children’s rights to Washington, DC.

The desire to help children and trips to India resulted in a visit to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Orphanage. “I love India,” she said. ”It makes me more appreciative for ancient wisdom that deepened my spiritual views. I also like to give back wherever I go. It shows humility and develops unity in diversity that fosters an abundance of love, happiness, compassion, and peace.”

LaVita (1)In the United States, “We are blessed,” Rodriguez said. “You can drive around and not see kids on the streets. [In India], you see kids begging. But many still are smiling ear to ear. Why? Because it is not a materialistic culture, but a spiritual one that focuses on values. This is not only inspiring, but also truly beautiful.”

Wherever her travels take her, Rodriguez always stops by a cathedral to pray. And she tries to do some volunteering while vacationing.

“You leave a little piece of you there whenever you do something like that,” she said. “You are supposed to help others. I will never forget these experiences.”

Almost losing her life had a tremendous impact. “It pushed me. I just have a different view of life,” she said. “[My] having a lower-level spinal cord injury is minor. I could have died. I feel like I got a second chance, and I need to use it. To waste it would be such a mistake. God has placed these dreams in my heart and is clearing my path to fulfill them while driving me to act in a way that serves others.” •