Everything about Maria Gray, her words, gestures, and even how she listens, points to a woman who lives a life of wonder, gratitude and love for others. She is known for her positivity, her faith, and her genuine concern for whoever is in front of her. Maria has gifted the Hispanic Alliance with a wealth of insight into the experiences, people, and places that have made her who she is, adding broad strokes of color to the canvas of Hispanic Heritage.
Maria was born and raised in Honduras, a land where the beach and the mountains exist back-to-back. She grew up along the coast, and credits her birth with inspiring her love for the outdoors. Her father was Spanish, and her mother of Lebanese heritage, so her personal growth began from a place of diversity. During her youth, the Honduran government had reached some amount of stability after several coups, albeit, under military rule. The country was slowly building its infrastructure and utilities on its way to a civilian government. The rapid population increase had made resources and jobs scarce. Those who lived in the city struggled against crime and unemployment, and those in the country were isolated by poor roads. Maria remembers that, “Seeing the struggles of so many people, while growing up in a developing country, gave me a great dose of awareness about poverty and what people spared from it can do to alleviate it.”
Maria had the opportunity to graduate from law school and met her husband in Honduras. The couple has lived in Florida and Texas, before settling in Greenville four years ago. “My husband was born and raised in Greenville, SC. We have been married 25 years, so despite moving recently, I have visited Greenville and seen it transform through the years. We love Greenville and being close again to the mountains and the beach!” Maria also earned a graduate degree in business and found that she loved managing programs that served the major health issues of vulnerable people. In Texas and South Carolina, she coordinated and implemented the evidence-based Chronic Disease and Diabetes Self-Management Programs, developed by Stanford University. Soon after coming to Greenville, her work and heart led her to volunteer with the Hispanic Alliance Health Team.
She has enthusiastically supported the health fairs and cooking classes as a vendor or volunteer for the last three years. She has also volunteered and presented with the Education Team at their Annual College Fair. “My love and understanding of the Hispanic culture, and the challenges faced by immigrant communities played a role in my decision to volunteer for the Hispanic Alliance,” she explains. The Hispanic Alliance provides the incubation space for a wonderful group of professionals, within which Maria’s passions and interests have been influential, especially with the team’s choice to focus on diabetes prevention for the 2018 Health Cooking Class. It turned out to be Maria’s most meaningful experience with her team:
“I have great memories! One of my favorite moments is presenting the two healthy recipes with Karina Suri this year to the Hispanic community. It was a green smoothie and a vegetarian dish, so I was hoping people would like it. Our awesome health team cooked for a group of about 40 persons, and Karina and I did the demonstration. The team must have done a great job because everyone liked the recipes!”
Maria’s time in Honduras certainly exposed her to the damaging health effects of poverty, and her work to help people conquer diabetes kept steering her towards food choice as vital to community health. After her time with the Stanford study drew to a close, she was diligently seeking the next leg of her journey that would continue to make a positive impact on people in need. Her new role as the Manager of Our Lady’s Pantry for Catholic Charities of South Carolina is a perfect fit. She came on board in the strategic planning stages, and has thoughtfully shaped this initiative with the needs of the community in mind.
Our Lady’s Pantry is a start-up operation with a focus on wellness that just opened its doors on October 2nd, to serve people living with food insecurity in the Upstate. Located in the largely Latino San Souci community, it is housed in San Sebastian Catholic Church, a central organizer in the area. “We implement the “client choice” method of food distribution that preserves participants’ dignity by allowing them to select their own food based on their needs and preferences,” she explains. Services are by appointment and wrap-around services are available through organizations that partner with Catholic Charities.
“I can directly impact a person, and address wellness, poverty, and food insecurity in my community in a meaningful way. I get to know each person, everyone has a story. It is a humbling and rewarding experience in many ways. Our clients teach me perseverance and resilience, and our volunteers and donors, that giving back and respecting the dignity of every person, can go a long way to make this world a better place.”
As Maria shares about her life, it is evident that it is not just the particular combination of cultures that influences her sense of social responsibility, but more so the places and situations from which she draws wisdom. Unfortunately, she relates, “Hispanics are faced with lack of access to care, cultural barriers when receiving care, and a high incidence of chronic illness that increases with assimilation.” She can connect easily with people through her earnest desire to share what will truly make them well – even if its convincing folks to try food in unusual colors. “I just tried again at the pantry, and it worked with a child and mother. They both tried a green smoothie with spinach and liked it. It made my day! The small things we do every day ultimately have a big impact on our health, so I celebrate the small steps!”
Though she works daily with the complex intersection of culture and social needs, Maria’s understanding of heritage is blissfully simple. “My Hispanic heritage is the people and culture - the family, the delicious foods, the music, and the beautiful arts and crafts. The love and memories of the snowed mountains and the beautiful beaches of Cantabria in Northern Spain, the historic Mayan Ruins in Copan, the beautiful Bay Islands, and the gorgeous mountains surrounding the “Ciudad de los Zorzales” in Honduras - all have a very special place in my heart.”
“Living the richness of…three cultures has given me an appreciation for diversity in all its cultural forms and the ability to connect with people from all walks of life. These combined experiences taught me to value justice, education, nature, humanity, and solidarity. My years in Honduras gave me the desire to help others and the perspective to live life with gratitude, empathy, and purpose.”
Congratulations, Maria! You have achieved success according to your own values, and blessed our organization and community along the way.