Mary’s Centermarys Center

By Cynda Zurfluh



Mary’s Center founder,Maria Gomez, saw a growing problem in her community and felt she could dosomething about it. She started small – using the resources she had at the timeand over the years, she has grown her vision into what is now an impressiveorganization. As testament to the significant role Mary’s Center plays in theDC region, it was chosen as the first of Michelle Obama’s DC Community Visitssoon 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 apublic health nurse, she noticed an increasing number of women from LatinAmerica were suffering traumatic abuses during their trips to the UnitedStates. Many were pregnant when they arrived and not able to get the care theyneeded in the States. 


Ms. Gomez was able to getfunding through the D.C. mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs and the D.C. Department of Health toestablish Mary’s Center in1988. In itsearly years, the Center delivered bilingual health services to around 200 pregnantwomen and their infants in the mainly Latino areas of the city’s Ward 1.


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


Still under Maria’sleadership more than two decades later, Mary’s Center now cares for more than24,000 clients each year at their DC and Maryland locations. Just this year,they opened a new facility on Georgia Avenue that accommodates twice the numberof people served by the building it replaced. The new facility is metroaccessible and enables Mary’s Center to reach out to an even greaterpopulation.


In addition to their threebrick 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 withinsurance enrollment, referrals for issues such as domestic violence, andeducation for mothers and their families. The “Mama & Baby Bus” enablesMary’s Center staff to interact with clients in their communities and understandthe challenges families face in their home neighborhoods. 


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


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


In 2004, Mary’s Center wasgranted $4 million to expand their care and formalize their services beyondmedical care. They hired and trained staff and installed outcomes trackingsoftware to examine their care model and continually monitor their progressthrough the progress their individual clients are making.


Mary’s Center calls ittheir Social Change Model. They marry health care, social services, and educationto leverage their ability to improve their clients’ situations – current andfuture. By taking an active role in servicesbeyond basic medical care, Mary’s Center strives to establish a stablefoundation for their clients. Programs such as English as a Second Language, computerliteracy, smoking cessation support groups, social services, and education foryoung children, result in clients who are healthier and better equipped to improvetheir economic status.


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


While Mary’s Center has anelaborate process based on years of experience and tons of great talent, theirgoals and the outcomes they track are straightforward. Their health caretargets include HIV screenings, well woman exams, prenatal care, immunizations,and management of chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Inall categories, Mary’s Center clients are ahead of the DC and nationalaverages.


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


The teenage children oftheir clientele are an important focus for the Center. The results for theteens in their program are impressive. They know these kids are at risk of unplannedpregnancy, drug use, and gang involvement. Mary’s Center works closely with theteens 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 understandshow important it is for their clients to learn the habits most of us take forgranted. 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 forthe entire family. Once their clients are secure in their own abilities andfeel connected to their communities, they are more self sufficient and ready tohelp others who may be struggling.


In addition to the obvious good Mary’s Center brings to thefamilies they serve, their web of services helps the region save millions ofdollars 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’sCenter or to make a donation, visit their web site at

CyndaZurfluh is a mother of three. Her previous life was a corporate blur ofmeetings and marketing. Her current life, while still a blur, is all aboutfamily, writing, and small business consulting. Contact her [email protected].






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