By Cynda Zurfluh
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
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
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
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 www.maryscenter.org.
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