A North Alabama educator is competing for a national title, using her military experience and work in the classroom to help others.
"I've been a third grade teacher, a fifth grade teacher, a music teacher, an assistant principal, a reading specialist," said Mary Ann Hotaling.
Hotaling is a Top 25 finalist competing for Ms. Veteran America
These days, Hotaling oversees the curriculum for the English Language Learner students at Decatur City Schools' Excel Center.
"I remember walking into my kindergarten class not knowing a lick of English," she said. "My father is from Portugal and my mother is from Brazil, so we spoke Portuguese at home."
From an early age, she learned how to adapt and overcome life's challenges.
"If you're willing to put in the work and stay at it and be consistent, you can achieve whatever you want to achieve. I genuinely do believe that," she said.
After college, she earned a commission into the U.S. Army, serving five years in the Army Medical Service Corps. As a Lieutenant, she served as an ambulance platoon leader during the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.
"It's my way of giving back to our country, everything this country has given me and my family," said Hotaling.
Now, the retired Army Captain is leading the charge against another battle, the fight against homelessness for female veterans.
"It could be someone you know," she said. "It's the fastest growing population of homelessness in America."
Currently, there's more than 55,000 homeless female veterans, a number only expected to rise in the wake of the ongoing pandemic.
"We may be sick of COVID-19 but COVID-19 is not sick of us yet and because of that, we're going to have more homelessness in our country, not just homeless female veterans, homelessness as a whole," she said.
That's why she felt compelled to step forward and advocate for her fellow warriors-- and the chance to be named Ms. Veteran America, continuing her service beyond the uniform.
"For me, this is a job interview, to be the national advocate for these female homeless veterans," said Hotaling.
Through her service, Hotaling is raising funds for FinalSalute, a group that helps homeless female veterans get back on their feet.
"For every $25 during this fundraiser, I'm ruck marching a mile for these female veterans," she said.
Just $25 provides a day of transitional housing, food and counseling.
Hotaling is on a 50-mile journey, carrying the load for those who struggle to stand on their own.
"The struggle and the pain and the exhaustion I'm feeling right now is nothing compared to these amazing women that are struggling to make it every day, many of them with small children," she said.
She's encouraging others to continue to fight for their dreams whether it's in the classroom or beyond.
"I want them to know there's hope at the end of the day, there's hope at the end of this chapter. It's not the whole book, it's not the novel, it's one small part and we are here to help," she said.
Hotaling will complete her 50-mile march on Saturday, with a 10-mile march beginning and ending at the Huntsville-Madison County Veterans Memorial on Monroe Street.
Click here to help Hotaling reach her goal.