Visión y Compromiso, Maria Lemus
I was recently introduced to the founding executive director of Visión y Compromiso (Vision and Commitment), Maria Lemus. Five minutes into our phone call, I was so inspired by Maria, her story, and her work that I wanted her to be my new best friend. Her warmth of character, generosity of spirit, authenticity, determination, and tenacity immediately drew me in.
Maria was raised in San Bernardino, California, by immigrant parents from Mexico. She was part of a working poor family at time when, as Maria says, “Mexican girls had very specific roles they were expected to play.” Defying those roles, Maria graduated from high school—the first person from her family to do so—and went on to receive a degree from UC Riverside. After graduating from college, Maria held various city, county, and state government positions. She laughingly describes herself as a “recovering bureaucrat.”
In 1992, she stepped back from her government work to become a stay-at-home mom. Maria redefined the phrase “stay-at-home mom,” however, immersing herself in her community, serving as PTA president, volunteering with organizations that fueled her passion, and ultimately building an informal statewide network of community health workers and promotoras.
Promotoras are advocates in their communities, providing culturally relevant health education to native-born and immigrant populations. They are intimately connected to their neighbors and are in a unique position to understand local needs and find resources. Promotoras address a wide range of issues, including mental health, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, chronic disease prevention, cancer, nutrition, oral health, anti-hunger, nutrition education, and healthcare access. According to Maria, the essence of a promotoras is his or her heart: ultimately, a promotoras is a person who gives.
In 2000, Maria decided to unite her informal network, forming Visión y Compromiso (VyC), an organization that provides structure, training, and a bigger voice to Promotoras and Community Health Workers. For the first four years, she ran VyC from her kitchen table with just her computer, her phone, and her kids running around. Once, she even negotiated a contract at her son’s baseball game.
In less than 15 years, Visión y Compromiso has grown from 1 to 5 to 1,000 to more than 4,000 local advocates spread across 14 regions in California. VyC is also adding 5 new states to its network this year: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
While Maria continues to dream big by moving VyC from California to the western region to completely national in size, her focus remains small. She cares deeply about each member of her network, teaching that “change in your community is dependent on you.”
Another favorite saying of Maria’s is “con dinero, sin dinero” (with or without money). Maria says that while VyC can’t always count on funding for its network, it doesn’t matter: the organization keeps moving forward. “We each have the skills within us to get things done if we only look,” she says. The promotoras are helping neighborhoods realize that together, they can build stronger, healthier, and more economically-sound communities.
Maria is an inspiration to all of us trying to balance work, family life, and involvement in our communities. To learn more about Maria and Visión y Compromiso, check out her website!