2020 Hero Marys Center Insights Racial Health Disparities

Building better lives for better health

Hispanic people across the United States face unique circumstances that often lead to poor health. Factors including immigration status, education level, neighborhood conditions and access to healthy foods, transportation and health care facilities all can make achieving good health a struggle.

We recently spoke with Maria Gomez, RN, MPH, president and CEO of Mary’s Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit community health center started more than three decades ago. The center seeks to put families on a path towards good health, stability and economic independence by working holistically to offer the appropriate combination of health care, education and social supports. We discussed Mary’s Center’s integrated approach to care and the programs the organization runs to address racial health disparities and create healthier individuals and communities. 

You are looking beyond just physical health; your Social Change Model uses an integrated approach to getting people healthy. Can you describe the model and why it’s important?

Early on, we recognized that caring only for physical health concerns was not enough to put our community on the path toward a healthy and stable life. We knew we had to address the social determinants that influence health on a daily basis.

With this in mind, we developed our Social Change Model, which allows us to offer medical, dental and behavioral health services for the entire family, along with social services and education—all under one roof.

Using our Social Change Model as a guiding principle, we aim to provide comprehensive, integrated care so that no one falls through the cracks. For example, when a parent brings in a child for vaccinations, the doctor may ask the parent about their own physical or mental health and any other concerns regarding employment, literacy, food security or other issues that could impact their health. The provider can then connect that family to other Mary’s Center or external resources during the same visit.

There is a strong emphasis on education for both children and adults. How is this beneficial to health?

Quality education leads to job opportunities, economic independence and stable housing—all those social determinants that impact health. Educated individuals are empowered to advocate for themselves and their communities to get access to the resources they deserve, including employment-based health insurance.

Research shows that children’s school achievements are linked to their parents’ literacy and education levels, and educating parents and children together promotes strong families and success in school and in life. Because education plays such a key role in health, we began a partnership with Briya Public Charter School more than 20 years ago. From the beginning, incorporating two-generation learning was key.

Families enroll together, with parents studying English, digital literacy and parenting, while their children receive a high-quality early education. Adults can also work towards their high school diploma or training for medical assistant and child development associate credentials.

Mary’s Center serves a largely Hispanic population. Are there particular barriers the community faces that may be different from other populations? How are you helping to address them?

Mary’s Center opened 32 years ago to offer prenatal care to women newly arrived in D.C. after fleeing war in Central America, and many of our participants to this day are still reconciling with physical, sexual and emotional trauma. Language barriers can also pose a challenge for Hispanic populations, and on top of that, structural racism is an underlying factor often leading to unjust difficulties.

It is well documented that the Hispanic population has one of the highest rates of being uninsured. This often leads many to delay seeking care or not seek any care at all. Thirty percent of our patient population is without insurance, and in Prince George’s County (MD), that number is as high as 50 percent.

This is where our Social Change Model comes in. If we can get people into the building, we can address many of their needs. All in one building, we address medical and dental needs, provide behavioral health support, connect participants with social services, including housing and employment resources, and enroll participants in English language and other classes. Improving the participants’ economic opportunities is one of our major goals.

What role do cultural competencies play in your ability to help individuals and families reach their full potential?

As an organization, we use our cultural competency and compassion to promote and celebrate diversity by placing the needs of our participants and community first. Language and cultural barriers can lead to poor medical treatment and reduce patient follow-up.  We hire staff whose backgrounds reflect the communities we serve and who many speak multiple languages. We have an internal Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Awareness (IDEA) Committee that works to ensure Mary’s Center is a place that welcomes people of all races, gender identity, sexual orientation, culture and country of origin. Regardless of the language they speak, their abilities, age, faith or immigration status, all can be helped at Mary’s Center. By fostering a supportive environment free from judgement, we can meet participants where they are and work together to build toward a healthier future.

Learn more about Mary’s Center’s Social Change Model in this report from the Urban Institute with additional analysis from the National Institutes of Health.

2020 Headshot Maria Gomez Marys Center Insights1
Maria Gomez, RN, MPH President and CEO Mary’s Center

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