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Maria S. Gomez (N’77)

President and CEO, Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Care

By Amy Poftak

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In the early 1980s, Maria S. Gomez (N’77) came to a realization that would eventually lead to her life’s work.

“There’s the nurse who loves the fast pace of the ER, there’s the hospital nurse who enjoys being on the go, and then there’s the nurse who saves lives out in the community,” she says. “That’s where I wanted to be.”

At the time Maria was making home visits to patients discharged from Washington, D.C., hospitals. What she discovered was alarming—people living without refrigeration, families on the verge of homelessness, elderly people who couldn’t eat solid foods because they didn’t have dentures.

“One thing I took away from Georgetown is that it’s not just about the disease, it’s about the environment in which the person lives—and seeing people in the context of what is around them, from their family and workplace to their language and even religion,” she says.

A Model for Social Change

Today, Maria employs this global view as the president and CEO of Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Care, which she founded in 1988.

From its modest roots as a basement clinic serving Latino women in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, the center has grown into a $15 million operation annually serving more than 17,000 people from 40 different countries. In addition to having three locations and a mobile health unit, Mary’s Center is building a new state-of-the-art building in D.C.’s Ward 4.

Maria S. Gomez – Fast Facts

  • President and CEO of Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Care, Washington, D.C.
  • Immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia at age 13
  • Favorite Georgetown class: Community Health
  • Recipient, Washingtonian of the Year award (among many other accolades)
  • Hosted a visit from First Lady Michelle Obama at Mary’s Center in February 2009

Mary’s Center follows what Maria calls a social change model, one that provides not only health care, but a raft of social services and family literacy programs.

Walking around the Adams Morgan facility one summer morning, it’s impossible to miss how the model works. Mothers and their small children filter in throughout the day to speak with nutritionists as part of the Women Infants & Children program. Other families sit in a waiting area for medical services while student volunteers read to the younger kids. In a conference room down the hall, there’s the sound of 90 teenagers exchanging views as part of a get-together between Mary’s Center kids and children whose parents work at the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Vital Outcomes

The results of this holistic approach have been nothing short of remarkable.

In 2009, 96.7 percent of Mary’s Center babies had a healthy birth weight compared to 89 percent of babies across D.C. Ninety-five percent of the center’s pregnant patients entered prenatal care in the first trimester, a rate that is 16 percent higher than the citywide rate (and 28 percent higher for Hispanic women). None of the 266 teenagers who received program or case management services dropped out of school. Among several notable educational outcomes, 88 percent of the center’s adult learners improved their English skills and 91 percent of parents reported reading to their children.

“Our goal is to change the paradigm for families that continue to stay in poverty because of lack of education and economic opportunity,” says Maria.

Maria is a living example of this transformation. At the age of 12, she emigrated from Colombia to Washington, D.C., with her mother. While Maria struggled to learn English at school, her mom kept the family together by working as a childcare provider and housekeeper.

“I became her interpreter,” says Maria. “That always stayed in my mind, how awkward it must have been for my mom, as a parent, to have to depend on me. But she never really had the chance to move up educationally because she was working so hard.”

At Georgetown, Maria said she encountered a much different world than she was used to, even though she attended high school just a few blocks up the street. “It was a hard adjustment, culturally and class-wise, but the lesson I took from Georgetown was how to work and live with people who were different from me,” she says.

Aside from the technical nursing skills she gained at NHS, Maria cites the school’s “self-care model” as a foundational concept she has carried with her throughout her career, first as a nurse at Georgetown University Hospital and later working in the public health arena.

When she launched Mary’s Center after obtaining a master’s in public health from the University of California at Berkeley, she was determined to invest in social and educational services to “fix some of the barriers to people taking care of themselves.”

The Fight Continues

Despite the strides Mary's Center has made in serving the D.C. community in the past 22 years, Maria is visibly emotional when talking about the struggles of the families who walk through her doors today.

“My life was hard growing up, but it’s like a piece of cake compared to these kids who have to deal with dangerous neighborhoods and worry about issues like, ‘what’s the plan if mom gets deported?,’” she says.

What keeps her going in the face of these challenges, says Maria, is “being able to share with my 14-year-old daughter that it is our responsibility to never give up, to never forget where we have been and to never turn our backs on the least fortunate among us.”

March 9, 2011 | Amy Poftak is director of alumni communications in Georgetown's Office of Advancement.