Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mary’s Center – Community, Health and More

A fifteen minute walk from trendy DuPont Circle in Washington DC takes me to Mary’s Center on Ontario Street. I have come to visit the family computer literacy program honored with the Verizon Tech Savvy Award, which I created as Iowa’s first lady. I wanted to identify best practices among programs that teach technology skills to parents and children together.

What I didn’t expect was a neighborhood services potluck: a health clinic, a Reach Out and Read site, a WIC clinic, mental health and domestic violence counseling, and founder, nurse, Maria Gomez, who has been serving her neighborhood for 20 years.

Students, mostly women, pack small classrooms encircled with computers. In level one, students struggle to say their names in English. In level three, students discuss in English the values they want to teach their children. The hall is a parking lot for strollers. The babies are cared for in the daycare down the hall.

The health clinic hums, no chair empty. Men, women and children wait to see a doctor. Originally a maternal health clinic, Mary’s Center has expanded its mission to include men and has been designated a federally-funded community health center.

Founder and CEO Maria Gomez recounts the story of the day 20 years ago when she asked gang members to vacate the corner so their mothers and sisters could come safely to the clinic for treatment. They were gone the next day and never returned.

Upscale homes and businesses pepper the area now, encroaching on a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Maria cobbles together enough money to keep the clinic and literacy programs alive, but her success in serving the needs of the neighborhood means space has become an issue.

She is proud that First Lady Michelle Obama visited the daycare recently. She knows just how she plans to use increased federal funding next year to expand services. She has the use of a corridor of rooms in a nearby elementary school and she’s opened a site in a Latino neighborhood in nearby Maryland.

Coincidentally, many parts of my life come together in Mary’s Center. The Tech Savvy Award brings me here, but I also serve on the national board of Reach Out and Read, a non-profit that enlists the help of pediatricians to use books as diagnostic tools and to convince parents to read aloud to their children. As Secretary of Agriculture, my husband oversees the nation’s WIC (women, infants and children) food assistance program, which is currently encouraging women to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

I serve as executive director of the Iowa Initiative, a non-profit focused on reducing the number of unintended pregnancies among women ages 18-30. Mary’s Center also counsels women about family planning issues and dispenses birth control.

Part of my job involves talking to civic organizations about working together in communities to improve women’s reproductive health. I spend a lot of time with decision-leaders and policy makers who fund Title X family planning services or provide resources at the state level. I learn from people who gather statistics and write about issues like providing access to free, long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARC).

But sometimes, it’s helpful just to see how it all works for people in the course of their everyday lives: How do they fit a pap smear, a well-baby check up and an English class into the same Mary’s Center visit? How does it feel to introduce themselves in a new language to a visiting dignitary? It’s also rejuvenating to listen to the story of one ordinary woman who decided to make a difference in her neighborhood and succeeded.