By Ashley Vaughan, CNN
(CNN) - Maria D'Angelo is a former private school teacher who has made the shelters of Los Angeles her classroom.
Her goal: to transform the lives of homeless children through academic and social opportunities. Through her nonprofit, the Children's Lifesaving Foundation, D'Angelo believes she can spread hope to a community often overlooked.
"I believe everyone is fundamentally good," she explained. "I don't like to give up on people."
For D'Angelo, the reality of growing up poor is personal. When she was 13, D'Angelo and her siblings immigrated to Staten Island, New York, from Naples, Italy. Her father, an artist and chef, had moved three years earlier to establish a life for his children.
"We moved into a $30-a-month walkup apartment," she said. "None of us spoke English."
To help her parents make ends meet, D'Angelo and her siblings went to work. Her first job was in a bakery after school, which foreshadowed her love of service.
"Each Saturday night, (my boss) would give me all the baked goods and cakes that were left over," she said. "So, I would bring them to the entire neighborhood. ... I was so thrilled."
Despite growing up in poverty, D'Angelo never saw herself as poor. "Being poor is a real state of mind," she said. "We never felt poor; we just lived in a poor environment."
D'Angelo went on to college and became a high school Spanish and Italian teacher. She also served as a tour guide for New York's Rockefeller Center. But it was on a trip to a homeless shelter that D'Angelo was "accidentally" introduced to a future life of nonprofit work.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1990, D'Angelo worked as a volunteer in a shelter and met an 8-year-old boy who couldn't read. She learned that the boy never attended school because his mother never took him for the required physical exam. Without hesitation, she got the mother's permission and took him for the exam. Soon, D'Angelo was taking other kids to the doctor and eventually on field trips.