La Clinica’s Chief Development Officer Maria Underwood was featured in the Mail Tribune’s Community Builder series in September.
The series features conversations with local leaders who have been involved in work to change Southern Oregon. Maria talked about her background, her work at La Clinica, and La Clinica’s role in the community.
Committed to care
By Steve Boyarsky
Sept. 6, 2022
Maria Ramos Underwood has dedicated more than two decades to community health
Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q& A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Maria Ramos Underwood, chief development officer at La Clinica.
Q: What are your primary responsibilities as La Clinica’s Chief Development Officer?
Maria: My primary responsibility is to raise money for La Clinica. I simplify health care and financial issues to potential funders, who may not understand the complexity of health care, to show how their contribution will make a positive impact. Another responsibility is to help the organization shift and adapt to meet grant requirements. I try to match La Clinica’s strategic initiatives, mission, vision and the community needs with the funder’s goals. We build relationships and trust with individuals and granting agencies to meet our community’s greatest health care needs.
Q: How do you know what the community medical needs are?
Maria: We do a comprehensive environmental scan and community needs assessment every year. We look at what impact the health and wellness of our community. We examine hospitalization rates and the causes of hospitalization, but also explore issues that are upstream, like housing costs, child care and graduation rates. Our services are targeted for lower income, uninsured or Medicaid patients, and we need to know what’s happening in their lives that impact our services.
Almost 40% of people in Jackson County — 80,000 of the total population of 220,000 — qualify for our sliding scale discounts. We want to know about their unique needs. How many are gainfully employed? And if not, why? What’s getting in the way? What’s the impact of mental health? We’re constantly asking questions. Our office puts together a comprehensive report that goes to the board every year for strategic planning. We focus locally — our service area is Jackson County, but we need to stay informed about what Oregon is doing statewide because the legislature is critical in funding.
Q: La Clinica has really grown in the past 30 years. How have you raised money to match this growth?
Maria: We’ve built relationships with our funders by being very clear about the community needs. That’s how we’ve successfully grown. I’ve been at La Clinica 23 years. When I started, we had one clinic in Phoenix with 50 employees and about 4,000 patients. Working under the leadership of Brenda Johnson, we’ve grown. Brenda leads with her heart. If she led with her mind, she might have said, ‘No way; the risks are too great.’ She understands the risks; she’s not blind to that, but she knows what the needs are. In 2021, we provided 125,000 health care visits to over 31,000 people in our community.
Q: In addition to medical, dental and behavioral health services, you’re also involved in educational programs. Why are these educational programs important?
Maria: There always has been a training component for La Clinica employees. We recruit employees that are bilingual and bicultural from local high schools, and then we train them to be receptionists, medical assistants, dental assistants and administrative support. About 10 years ago, we expanded into developing the soft skills of our employees — things like communication skills and how to give and receive feedback that results in team cohesion and reduces drama. That coalesced in the last few years into a department called The Learning Well. We’ve now expanded those education services to our patients. We teach our patients things like mindfulness, nutrition, managing diabetes and cooking classes, all under the umbrella of The Learning Well. This summer, we brought on WinterSpring as a program under The Learning Well, so now we have grief support systems. We’re opening our offerings to everyone: patients, community members and employees. Our long-term goal is to create career pipelines for our employees and patients.
Q: Classes are for employees, patients and community members?
Maria: We’re expanding internships and residency services to help train future health care providers. We’re partnering with accredited institutions of higher ed to do the curriculum development. They do the classroom training, and we’re responsible for the clinical experience. We’re having students with mental health training come in as interns this fall. The great resignation during COVID left so many vacancies. Everybody is struggling with recruiting and retention. Fortunately, we started this before COVID, and now the system’s ready.
We did some analysis of our patients who do not have a diagnosis or a medical limitation that would prevent them from being gainfully employed. We want to identify patients who are not working full time to see if The Learning Well can help with developing a career. We have certified coaches on The Learning Well team who can meet with those patients. Having someone say, ‘You can do this’ to somebody who’s 40, that’s pretty cool. That’s the dream of The Learning Well.
Q: What was your personal journey? How did you find a home in Southern Oregon?
Maria: A boy! I met my husband, Verne, in college. We were both students at Arizona State University in Tempe. We met on a blind date and fell in love. He was getting a PhD in nondramatic Renaissance literature, so everything but Shakespeare. He was on course for teaching in a university. If he had graduated 10 years earlier, he would’ve landed at a university doing research and teaching. But when we graduated in the late ’90s, it was the beginning of a disinvestment in education. There were very few positions.
He’s from Oregon and never really adapted well to the Arizona desert. He submitted over 100 job applications, and Rogue Community College was one of the few that had openings. He interviewed the year that RCC was expanding to Jackson County. We moved here in the summer of 1997. I fell in love with this community and how beautiful it is. We’ve raised our two kids here. I found a Latino community at La Clinica and have been there ever since.
Q: How did a first-generation immigrant graduate from college and become a development director?
Maria: I was born in Mexico and moved to the United States when I was 3. My father was in the Bracero program since he was 15 and had essentially grown up here. He went back to Mexico in his 30s to ‘settle down.’ My mom had no intention of leaving Mexico, but two of my siblings contracted childhood diseases and almost died. My father said to my mother, ‘They vaccinate kids for that in the United States.’ They lived in very rural Durango with limited access to health care. If you could find a ride, it was several hours to drive to see a doctor.
Q: So your parents settled in Arizona?
Maria: My dad got a job at Rosarita’s Mexican food plant. Over the years, my parents hosted many family members and friends who couldn’t find work in Mexico. Educated folks: a cousin who had a master’s degree in engineering who couldn’t find a job; a friend trained as a physician couldn’t get work. That’s soul-crushing. They came here to work at whatever they could get because they were undocumented. They couldn’t get work in their field in Mexico or the U.S.
So I grew up seeing that the world is not the same for everybody. Being born on the wrong side of the border can make a world of difference. I had the incredible privilege of being in this country legally. I was lucky to attend ASU at a time when the state funded higher education adequately. I got the president’s scholar award, and tuition was free. That was an incredible gift. I studied sociology because I wanted to figure out, ‘Why is the world so upside-down?’
The sermon from my parents, was always, ‘The minute you can, you give back to your community because but for the grace of God …’ Use your privilege to help others in the community. That was the message. As little kids, we translated for our parents. I explained compound interest to my father. If I didn’t know something, I’d have to research it because my family depended on me. That forced me to grow up. Education was the carrot to having a better life to support yourself, your family and community. The stick was watching my parents work very, very hard. I knew first-hand what the alternative was if I didn’t go to school. My mother worked sorting oranges all day. By the end of the day, her hands were frozen still. If my dad wasn’t working at Rosarita’s, he was doing farm labor on evenings and weekends to make ends meet. Every summer, our whole family got up at 5 in the morning to pick onions. There was just no choice.
Q: What changes in Southern Oregon have you seen since you’ve lived here?
Maria: I was really surprised at how expensive housing was when I moved here 25 years ago, compared with Tempe, Arizona. And that has just gotten worse. The number of folks who are houseless is a direct connection to that cost. We’ve had 25 years of increasing inflation in housing costs and a focus on single family homes that are unaffordable to many people living in this area. That’s been the most shocking to me.
I’ve seen this community become more diversified and the Latino community really come into its own. I’ve seen children our physicians delivered now graduating from college and coming back to make meaningful contributions. I absolutely love that. I’ve also seen this community really grapple with a changing culture. And struggling in their support of our LGBTQ community. That has been distressing. So some good things and some challenging things, but we’ve got to figure out what we’re doing with housing.
Q: What about La Clinica are you most proud of?
Maria: So many things. I absolutely love it when a community partner comes and says, ‘Can you help us?’ They have confidence in us, and we respond, ‘We may not have an immediate answer, but we’ll get there. We’ll get back to you. We’ll help figure this out.’ It’s indicative of the commitment of the staff. It’s rare that we say no. We always say, ‘If we can’t do it, we’ll find somebody who can help you.’ I’m proud of that flexibility and that commitment to service.
Ramos Underwood volunteers for diverse causes
Maria volunteers on several local and statewide boards to support the community she calls home. In the Rogue Valley, she was elected to the board of education for Rogue Community College and helped select their new president, Randy Weber.
She also serves as a board member of the Health Care Coalition of Southern Oregon, an organization providing pregnancy and early childhood support in Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties. Statewide, Maria serves as an adviser to the Latino Partnership Project, an Oregon Community Foundation program that improves the lives of Latino Oregonians.
She is also the vice-chair for the Gray Family Foundation, which funds environmental education, geography education, outdoor school and camp maintenance. Most recently, this foundation awarded its largest gift of $1 million to Friends of Outdoor School to ensure that all kids in Oregon have access to education about the environment and conservation.
Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.
Article captured 1/12/2023 from mailtribune.com