Aurita Maldonado ’01
Aurita Maldonado ’01 has survived being struck by a 200-pound improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, a case of rat lungworm that paralyzed her, losing her home from Hurricane Maria, and the death of her children’s father. She credits her resilience to the six years she spent at Milton Hershey School.
“When I think back to how I was molded, I don’t go back to my military training or time before MHS, but right back to MHS,” she said.
Maldonado recently chronicled her life’s journey in her book “The Zen of Dancing in the Rain: Becoming One with the Storm.” she hopes her story will inspire others the way many MHS teachers and staff have helped her over the past 29 years.
“MHS is full of my biggest mentors who have shaped who I am right now,” Maldonado said. “Without them, I do not think I would have been prepared at all for the next step.”
Maldonado joined the United States Army shortly after her MHS graduation in 2001. She knew the potential dangers, but was honored to serve her country and gain valuable leadership skills. Eight years into her service, an IED exploded directly under her vehicle and three rounds hit her pack. For her bravery and sacrifice, Maldonado earned a Purple Heart, a distinguished military decoration awarded in the name of the president to those who have been wounded or killed while serving in the U.S. armed forces.
She then decided to follow her passions and moved to Alaska to become a rafting guide. She faced her post-traumatic stress disorder by running in the wilderness. Being an active person was a passion that began as a member of the MHS cross country team.
In 2012, a severe case of rat lungworm brought another drastic change to Maldonado’s life. She was paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors told her she would never walk again. Determined to overcome the odds, Maldonado faced her adversity head-on and is now training for the 2023 Army Ten-Miler, which will be held in Washington, D.C. in Oct. 2023.
Then, in 2017, a fully mobile Maldonado moved to the 24-mile island of Vieques, Puerto Rico to teach salsa dancing. Her desire to embrace life through dance was interrupted when Hurricane Maria struck her new home. Maldonado’s survival instincts kicked in yet another moment of adversity.
Once again, Maldonado braved life’s storm and welcomed two children into her life. Until then, she viewed every one of life’s challenges—her mother abandoning her, the Army injury, paralysis, and the hurricane—as separate moments. When the father of her children died from a heart attack, the weight of her life became real.
“It took the most extreme moment for it to register for me that life had been so hard,” she said.
Maldonado had two children to care for and survival was necessary yet again. In late 2021, two friends enduring their own struggles reached out to her for advice. She began writing responses, which turned into 261 pages. Through the process, she realized that MHS gave her resilience.
During a recent visit to campus for a Spring Family Weekend, Maldonado reconnected with former teachers and houseparents. She spoke to students about her journey and encouraged them to follow their dreams regardless of the challenges. One of the trip’s highlights was a visit to Hawk Rock with her former houseparent, Randy Mladenoff. Mladenoff and his wife, Julie, were MHS houseparents for 40 years before retiring in 2018. Maldonado credits Mr. and Mrs. Mladenoff for nurturing her love for running.
“We began running together in 1995 when I was a new student,” Maldonado said. “He made it a point to always make time to run with me. He even brought me to races he was running in the area.”
The visit also reinforced to Maldonado that 22 years after graduation, she is still a Milt.
“I have this incredible network of support back in Pennsylvania,” she said. “The visit filled my heart and my soul. There is so much love for me there.”
Now back in Puerto Rico, Maldonado uses the lessons she learned from her MHS teachers when instructing dance classes on the island. She cannot watch everyone’s feet, so she tells her students to take responsibility for themselves by reporting when they struggle with steps.
“It’s the lesson I learned at MHS—do the right thing, even when no one is watching,” she said.