When she was born, Maria Olney weighed 5 pounds, 5 ounces. One year later, the Russian orphan was still only 11 pounds.
“You could see in pictures of me, I had a bloated stomach. You could see the bones in my hands. It was horrible,” Olney says. “Actually, a couple weeks after I was adopted, there were some kids that didn’t make it in the orphanage because they were starved.
“[The orphanage staff] especially didn’t like me because I had brown eyes and brown hair, and I wasn’t like all the other Russian kids there who had blue eyes and blonde hair. Those orphans were fed first.”
Her younger adopted sister was in a better orphanage in Russia but, due to a disability, was about to be moved to a facility with unthinkable conditions.
“My sister Kasenia was about to be sent to one of these places, and my mom was like, ‘No, I’m going to take her home,’ ” Olney says. “Even the people in Russia were like, ‘Oh, no, you don’t want her. You want a nice, healthy kid,’ and she was like, ‘No, I want her.’
“Yeah, it’s horrible. It’s just terrible,” the Maryland student adds. “There’s still 2 million kids in orphanages in Russia.”
Despite her challenging entry into the world, Olney is now truly American. Her only desire to return to Russia would be to help children in orphanages.
Her mother, an attorney, ran an adoption agency. Through travels to help families adopt, Lisa Olney and her husband, David, located their own children. Maria is one of four they adopted: two from Russia, one from India and one from Vietnam. She, her sisters Kasenia and Emily were 18 months or younger when adopted; her brother, Shawn, was 8 years old.
Diversity, understanding, education
Being surrounded by such diversity helps Olney keep an open mind.
“I’ve always learned to never judge a book by its cover, no matter what someone looks like, or where they’re from or anything. I won’t decide how I feel about them until I get to know them,” she says.
“I’m very blessed every day that I’ve been given a second chance. I’ve been brought into a family that’s good, and we have the resources that we need.”
Olney’s also grateful for the opportunity to have an education: “There are places around the world where girls are in fields, and they would do anything for the education that we have.”
Her appreciation for education led Olney to the Frederick (Md.) Career and Technology Center’s television/multimedia production program. She learned about SkillsUSA through its Broadcast News Production contest, twice competing on teams that made it to nationals. In 2014, her team placed 10th; the next year, they placed 11th.
During a dinner for the SkillsUSA Maryland delegation, Olney watched the state officers and decided to pursue a leadership role. When a slot opened in her school chapter, she filled that, then ran for a state office and was elected reporter.
Before SkillsUSA, “I used to be really shy as a kid. I didn’t like going up to people and talking. I stayed in my comfort zone just like any other teenager,” she says.
“SkillsUSA definitely brought me out of my shell. I can go up to somebody and shake hands and introduce myself, and do that in a professional setting. That’s what it really focused on … being yourself, and giving off a professional vibe, that’s a big thing it taught me.”
Starting as a high-school freshman, the three-season varsity athlete also ran cross-country indoor track, then outdoor track. Her love of running crossed into her career path. She worked for a company to get still photos and footage of students competing in track meets.
Because the meets went on for hours, she’d often spend her day on shoots, then go home to edit and upload her images. Olney also worked as a waitress at her parents’ restaurant in nearby Shepherdstown, W.Va.
After graduating high school with honors last year, she volunteered as a social-media ambassador at SkillsUSA’s national conference and later interned with its communications office.
Now a Towson (Md.) University freshman, Olney isn’t sure what keeps her motivated other than an innate sense that she can always learn and do more.
“My dad says success takes hard work, but hard work doesn’t guarantee success,” she says. “I feel like if I work hard, no matter what the outcome is, eventually, I’ll be successful somewhere.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily an end to being successful. I mean, I think some people have the mentality that, ‘Oh, I get this amazing job and then I’m done,’ but success is never-ending.”
Her quest for continuous improvement includes surrounding herself with good people, a quality of a true leader.
“You are who you surround yourself with,” she explains. “I definitely try to surround myself with good friends and good family members, and I just learn in the process.”