It still feels like a dream, hearing her name called, striding confidently onstage and being presented the Presidential Citizens’ Medal.
At a poignant White House ceremony last month, President Barack Obama presented Maria Gomez, founder and creative force behind Mary’s Center, with a medal and proclamation for her quarter-century of providing quality health care to the nation’s capital.
It is a moment Gomez said she’ll treasure.
“To have this honor is an honor in itself, but having it with this president is a great honor,” said the soft-spoken Colombian native during a recent interview. “This medal really represents the fact that we’ve been supported by [the broader] community and people from all walks of life. I don’t think it was an accident that we were chosen because of the issues dear to the president: education, health care and making sure that we have some economic equity.”
In her acceptance remarks, Gomez spoke about the people – particularly her mother Elvira – who shaped her.
“Today, I humbly accepted this extraordinary honor on behalf of individuals who have mentored, guided, and inspired me throughout my life,” she said. “I want to express my deepest appreciation to [the president] for bestowing this great honor on a woman, a Latina, a nurse, a mother, an advocate, and a resident of the District of Columbia.”
“… And, thank you to those who saw something in me and nominated me for this award.”
That she was one of 6,000 nominees for the award still boggles her mind, said Gomez. She said she was contacted by White House officials about a week before the Feb. 15 event and sworn to secrecy.
“I couldn’t say anything to anyone. I got a call a week earlier that I’d been selected. I was in a room full of staff when they called,” she said.
And in the days since the ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Gomez said she’s been running non-stop.
“Oh my gosh, it’s been a whirlwind,” she said. “It’s been unbelievable.”
There’ve been media interviews and more awards and honors interspersed with work and family activities but Gomez is taking it all in stride. Sitting down with a reporter allowed Gomez to reflect on her mother, who she credits with being the crux of any success she enjoys.
“My mother came only and solely to the United States to give me a better chance,” she said. “She was a woman who had one focus when she came: Me. Any aspirations she had had to be refocused on me. She was a housekeeper, maid, baby sitter, whatever it took. She got up when it was dark and returned home after dark. She worked hard.”
Gomez, the center’s president and CEO, remembers when a staff of 10 provided services to 200 clients in a basement at 1844 Columbia Road in Northwest.
“Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t dream this big. I wanted to give back to the community but I also wanted to start work on my Ph.D. and make lots of money,” she said with a laugh. “Soon, it was no longer about me. It was people.”
While working as a nurse with the D.C. Department of Health (DC DOH), Gomez and others recognized the needs of increasing numbers of Central American women who had fled to the District to escape civil wars and other unrest and who didn’t have access to needed prenatal care services. Although many of the women were raped and suffered other trauma, they had nowhere to go when they got here and the city’s health department didn’t have the capacity to serve this new and burgeoning population.
In 1998, Former Mayor Marion Barry, through the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs, allocated $250,000 for a center to cater to this vulnerable population. Today, said Lyda Vanegas, the center’s director of communications and advocacy, Mary’s Center employs 400 staffers at seven sites in the District and Maryland, is expected to serve 70,000 clients in 2013 and has a budget of almost $40 million.
“Mary’s Center makes sure people are healthy and educated. You have to have good health, an education and you have to be supported in the community. If you have these things, there’s no stopping you,” Gomez said.
On a recent Wednesday morning, more than two dozen parents and children sat in the vibrant, airy, colorful Georgia Avenue office. At the entrance large pictures of special guests such as first lady Michelle Obama, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), former first lady Hillary Clinton and others graced the wall.
The 26,000-square-foot complex houses 22 examination rooms, areas designated for childcare, class rooms where clients learn English, cooking and other skills and services, including prenatal care, pediatrics, early intervention, dental, and primary care services.
Currently, Vanegas said, the polyglot staff originating in 45 countries, serves clients from 110 countries. The center uses a holistic social change model so that underserved, underinsured and uninsured clients throughout the Washington metropolitan area receive comprehensive health, social and education services. It is free to those who can’t afford it and the rest pay on a sliding scale.
“We connect medical care with mental health. We want families to receive all the services here. We try to cater to all our clients’ needs at one time,” she said.
So if a client needs to apply for Medicare, food stamps or Women, Infants and Children (WIC) assistance, for example, staff will help them fill out the paperwork if they can’t. Or if a doctor diagnoses depression in a patient, counselors are onsite to access and treat that patient.
“I’m totally 100 percent sure that the eyes of the president are on our community. He wants to make sure that over the next four years we succeed as a community. He wants great things to happen in his backyard,” Gomez said.