By Marybel Rodriguez

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – A South Florida teenager is making a big impact on a local non-profit organization by volunteering her time to help differently-abled adults.

Ashley Prats first started volunteering at the WOW Center in Kendall as a 12-year-old. Her aunt is a speech therapist working with adults who have developmental disabilities. She enlisted Ashley’s help for one hour a week.

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“I help them conjugate words, I help them with tongue placement, eating food, and swallowing,” Prats said in describing her role.

(CBS4)

At The WOW Center, adults from 22 to 80 years of age are provided support, therapy, camaraderie, and compassion. The mission is to help them become more independent. Initially, Ashley was hesitant.

“I was at first extremely scared because I never really interacted with anyone with developmental disabilities, so I was nervous to come in and be someone so young teaching someone so much older than myself.”

But her comfort and confidence blossomed with each visit, and five years later the junior at St. Brendan High School has made some good friends, like Adriana.

Ashley Prats dances with Adriana at The Wow Center. (CBS4)

“One of the first things that I connected with Adriana is her love of dancing,” said Ashley. “I just love the energy and the vibe.”

The center’s executive director, Natalia Wong, can’t say enough about Ashley and the mission of volunteers like her who become ambassadors.

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“She’s amazing,” she said, “Volunteers play such an important role helping us make sure we have support for programming and resources but also they take the mission outside the walls.”

But for the last year, the pandemic prevented all the volunteers from being able to enter the center or interact in person. Ashley missed her visits.

“I wanted to help as much as I could because this place is dear to my heart and taught me so much and made me a better person, so I wanted to share that with others.”

Ashley started an Instagram page “Be the Wow” to share her WOW experience and enlisted 15 area schools for a donation drive to gather arts and crafts and cleaning supplies, with a tremendous result.

“On the day of the drive about 400 cars came, and we raised about 25 thousand dollars in supplies for the Wow Center.”

In delivering resources, raising awareness, Ashley kept busy until, finally, that long awaited in person visit. There were a lot of hugs on that reunion day.

When asked if she has added up the hours spent here, Ashley counted over 180. But she cannot measure how much the experience has taught her.

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“One of my favorite things is that mentally, everyone is seen as equals, nobody is seen as their disability, they are seen as people. They showed me that I can look beyond someone’s disabilities and see them for who they really are.”

Marybel Rodriguez