Community Leader Profile: Mary

Mary is a passionate community leader and  Community Health Worker of Village Gardens.  She initially became involved almost three years ago through her teenage daughter, Marshalia, who has been engaged with Village Gardens since its inception (specifically with the Kids’ Garden Club and Food Works). Once becoming involved with Village Gardens, Mary received a certificate from the Community Capacitation Center for completing initial training as a Community Health Worker.

Mary describes her work as a conjunction of many different responsibilities all pertaining to community health work. “I wear a lot of hats,” Mary says. “I do a lot of things under different titles.” As a Community Health Worker, she works on various projects to improve the public health of her community, specifically in St. Johns Woods. Mary helps residents find affordable housing, and has been particularly successful in helping women leave abusive situations and find their own homes. She strives to help people to be independent. Mary has helped a number of families to receive services from the Children’s Relief Nursery at the St. Johns site. As a member of the Patient Advisory Board at the North Portland Health Center, Mary has worked with various residents to get proper health care. She is also on the Resident Advisory Committee of Home Forward (formerly Housing Authority of Portland), enabling her to be a strong voice for the community.

In conjunction with Cascade Management, fellow Community Health Worker Ruthie Williams, Area Schools, and the North Portland Precinct, Mary helped start the Children’s Incentive Program, a program for kids ages 8-12 years old that engages them in service work and community beautification. The children beautify the community by picking up garbage, weeding gardens and sidewalks, and removing graffiti. Mary says this work helps give children “a sense of pride in where they live” and reminds the community that “these are really good kids.” In the upcoming months during the holidays, the Children’s Incentive Program is planning on delivering food boxes to community members. The children will be volunteering at the Portland Police Bureau Sunshine Division, an emergency food and clothing relief center serving Portland families and individuals in need.

Mary is currently working on starting a program to help sexually exploited youth. She wants to give young women ages 16 to 24 years old the opportunity and resources to escape dangerous situations and to ultimately “help themselves.” Mary says that this project is currently “a conversation in the making,” but that the foundation has already been laid. She says the idea was brought up in a Gang Task Force meeting, revealing how important this issues is for this community. “We can’t save everyone,” Mary says, “but if there was that one person that believed in me, it may have changed my life. I want to be that person, even if it’s just for one girl.” Mary says the best way for this program to be successful is to collaborate community members’ diverse strengths, skills, and experiences.

Mary also organizes many social events for the community, such as a spaghetti dinner and a barbecue that she hosted this past summer. Currently, Mary is starting a new walking group geared towards mothers who walk their kids to the bus every morning. The idea is for parents to “just keep pushing” after they walk to the bus stop with their children. Mary wants to create an environment where “everyone can get involved and support each other.” Walks meet at the school bus stop (the red bus) in the Pier Park Apartments at 7:35am, Monday through Friday.

Below are Mary’s reflections on two important questions:

What does “Soul Food” mean to you?

Soul Food for me is more than just “soul food.” Soul food doesn’t necessarily have to be edible. Its something that’s comforting, that’s a warming feeling and thought, that you can relax in and be safe in, find inner peace in. Something you can hold within yourself, makes you warm and smile. Its like Grandma’s apple pie at Christmas time…
But my real soul food– my kids, really. They are my distraction, but they are my soul food. I live my life for them. And not just my kids, but everybody’s. I use them as my inspiration to make sure I am the best I can be. I want to be the best weapon against their future in terms of growing up the way I did. I don’t want them to grow up the way I did. I didn’t eat properly, I didn’t go to the doctor. I want to be the best for my children.

Why is Village Gardens important to you? Why is it important for the community?

I think Village Gardens is first and foremost important for the community. Sometimes the people here don’t know how to access certain things, especially food. In the past I’ve had some very bad choices when it comes to food. My daughter is the one that would bring fresh food home from Village Gardens, saying “look, we cooked all these fresh vegetables!” It made me change my way of eating, and in turn changed my kids way of eating. Both me and my children have lost weight. Village Gardens does a great job at getting the word out about fresh, healthy food and how to make it taste good. Education around food is what’s important.
And the Community Health Worker Program goes even broader than just food. My strength in community health is helping people with their personal well-being. I start at the home. I can help you organize. I can help you get access to services and programs. I’m an empower-er: I don’t do it for you– I show you what to do. They say you can give someone a fish, or you can teach them to fish. And its true.
Village Gardens is here to empower people to live healthier lives– not to be “better” people, but to have better health. I’m not trying to change you, but I’m trying to show you a better way to change yourself. A lot of people come here and they learn things. They can access services, programs, computers…its more than just food. It started out as gardens, but it has expanded into something way more. If you took Village Gardens out of this community, people would have a hard time adjusting to that. People would go back to the way they were before. Village Gardens is here to take the time to serve the community and to recognize that people around here are worthy to be given resources. Being a Community Health Worker with Village Gardens is just the beginning for me. It goes beyond just Village Gardens and this community. I now work with so many different projects and I’m on so many different boards, and I try to help with the disparities here in many different ways. Now I’m a leader not just with Village Gardens, but also with the St. Johns Woods management, with Home Forward, with the Portland Police Bureau…its grown for me, and I like to look at it from that angle.
St. Johns Woods is a lone island when it comes to resources. We don’t have the money for resources or anything like that here. Village Gardens has filled that gap. It has given us so much and has become a large resource for this community. The community gardens and the Food Works Farm give us access to organic food. Teenagers can get work experience and money to put in their pockets. There are resources at Village Gardens– people who will answer your questions, people who will help our kids with their homework. They teach you how to grow your own food which actually helps you save money. Its been a huge impact on my family. It really has, over the years. On me and my kids.