Maria Gomez, Mary Center's Visionary and Engine

Barrington M. Salmon | 3/13/2013, 9:16 a.m.

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.