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December 2014

Mary's Center

By Cynda Zurfluh

  Michelle Obama reads to children


Mary’s Center founder, Maria Gomez, saw a growing problem in her community and felt she could do something about it. She started small – using the resources she had at the time and over the years, she has grown her vision into what is now an impressive organization. As testament to the significant role Mary’s Center plays in the DC region, it was chosen as the first of Michelle Obama’s DC Community Visits soon after her husband’s inauguration in 2009. 


As an immigrant herself – she came to the United States from Colombia at the age of thirteen - Maria Gomez felt a pull to provide for Latina women and their babies. Working as a public health nurse, she noticed an increasing number of women from Latin America were suffering traumatic abuses during their trips to the United States. Many were pregnant when they arrived and not able to get the care they needed in the States. 


Ms. Gomez was able to get funding through the D.C. mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs and the D.C. Department of Health to establish Mary’s Center in1988. In its early years, the Center delivered bilingual health services to around 200 pregnant women and their infants in the mainly Latino areas of the city’s Ward 1.


During the last two decades, Mary’s Center’s array of services as well as their constituency has broadened significantly. They provide comprehensive services to underserved, underinsured, and uninsured individuals in the D.C. region as well as to newcomers from over forty countries. Between 1988 and 2010, the Mary’s Center staff size grew from ten to 200 highly trained individuals, and their annual operating budget has grown from an initial $250,000 to over $14 million.


Still under Maria’s leadership more than two decades later, Mary’s Center now cares for more than 24,000 clients each year at their DC and Maryland locations. Just this year, they opened a new facility on Georgia Avenue that accommodates twice the number of people served by the building it replaced. The new facility is metro accessible and enables Mary’s Center to reach out to an even greater population.


In addition to their three brick and mortar locations, Mary’s Center has a mobile health unit – the “Mama & Baby Bus.” The Bus is equipped for health screenings, medical testing, vaccinations, and even dental care. The Bus staff also helps clients with insurance enrollment, referrals for issues such as domestic violence, and education for mothers and their families. The “Mama & Baby Bus” enables Mary’s Center staff to interact with clients in their communities and understand the challenges families face in their home neighborhoods. 


Mary’s Center’s focus is the entire family – not just mom and baby as their clientele typically have a strong connection to their extended families. They often share housing and family responsibilities across generations and among extended family members. Mary’s Center staff encourages clients to bring in other family members or even neighbors to ensure the best outcomes possible for a client, her family, and even her community.    


Ms. Gomez and her team realized treating medical issues wasn’t enough to improve their clients’ situations over the long term. The need for medical care is generally the reason a client comes to Mary’s Center, but once in the Center, clients aren’t just “treated” and sent on their way. Mary’s Center staff are trained to screen for additional health issues as well as identify social and educational opportunities for the client.


In 2004, Mary’s Center was granted $4 million to expand their care and formalize their services beyond medical care. They hired and trained staff and installed outcomes tracking software to examine their care model and continually monitor their progress through the progress their individual clients are making.


Mary’s Center calls it their Social Change Model. They marry health care, social services, and education to leverage their ability to improve their clients’ situations – current and future. By taking an active role in services beyond basic medical care, Mary’s Center strives to establish a stable foundation for their clients. Programs such as English as a Second Language, computer literacy, smoking cessation support groups, social services, and education for young children, result in clients who are healthier and better equipped to improve their economic status.


Mary’s Center has an impressive record of helping entire families find a better track. It makes a difference generationally – for each family member’s physical health, mental well being, as well as the opportunities made viable for the children. 


While Mary’s Center has an elaborate process based on years of experience and tons of great talent, their goals and the outcomes they track are straightforward. Their health care targets include HIV screenings, well woman exams, prenatal care, immunizations, and management of chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. In all categories, Mary’s Center clients are ahead of the DC and national averages.


For their social and educational goals, Mary’s Center tracks outcomes specific to their clients’ needs. The goals vary from the number of teen mothers who end up having another baby to the number of clients with children who have library cards, as the simple step of getting a library card shows future potential for a family because of an interest in ongoing education. 


The teenage children of their clientele are an important focus for the Center. The results for the teens in their program are impressive. They know these kids are at risk of unplanned pregnancy, drug use, and gang involvement. Mary’s Center works closely with the teens in their program to show them an alternative path. 


  • 90% finish high school (with the other 10% getting their GED).
  • 100% were promoted to the next grade level.
  • 72% went to college.
  • Of the senior teens they served this year, 96% are going to college and the rest have found work.


Mary’s Center understands how important it is for their clients to learn the habits most of us take for granted. If clients can establish a lifestyle with an emphasis on health, education, and their children’s future, it adds up to a lifetime’s benefit for the entire family. Once their clients are secure in their own abilities and feel connected to their communities, they are more self sufficient and ready to help others who may be struggling.


In addition to the obvious good Mary’s Center brings to the families they serve, their web of services helps the region save millions of dollars by preventing child abuse, reducing gang involvement and teen pregnancy, and helping an at risk population manage chronic diseases. Simply stated, Mary’s Center changes lives every day. 


To find out more about Mary’s Center or to make a donation, visit their web site at

Cynda Zurfluh is a mother of three. Her previous life was a corporate blur of meetings and marketing. Her current life, while still a blur, is all about family, writing, and small business consulting. Contact her at