Amplifying voices: Thomas commits her career to the community
Over the past few decades, Maria Thomas has traveled the globe, working to make an impact and help people improve their lives. In 2006, that passion brought her to Ann Arbor, where she has spent more than a decade ensuring the organization confronts pressing societal issues and health-related challenges.
“People in the community often know precisely what they need in order to succeed,” said Thomas, who serves as both the director of Community Benefit at Michigan Medicine and advocacy director for C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital. That’s why she meets regularly with Michigan Medicine’s neighbors, seeking to find out how the vast resources the organization has to offer can best support them — whether it’s providing things like vital maternal health care or improving access to healthy food.
Thomas also works at the policymaking level, educating lawmakers to try and convince them to enact statewide initiatives that benefit vulnerable populations.
“I’m so honored to be able to listen to and try and meet the needs of the communities we serve,” Thomas said. “It’s a challenging, yet incredibly enriching responsibility.”
A global perspective
Thomas’ interest in improving health outcomes began thousands of miles from Ann Arbor.
“I grew up in India and the Middle East,” Thomas said, noting that her parents still live in India. “I’m grateful for such a unique childhood, as it’s shaped my worldview in meaningful ways — inspiring me to reach out and help others no matter what their background may be.”
After graduating from college, she first performed a stint with UNICEF — a United Nations foundation that provides humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries. That work took her to Tajikistan and southern India.
Later, Thomas earned a Master’s degree from Columbia University in New York, bringing her to the U.S. for the first time. There, she met her husband and the two eventually settled in Ann Arbor.
“Believe it or not, you see many of the same health care challenges in Washtenaw County that you see across the globe,” Thomas said. “Those who live below the poverty line tend to have worse health outcomes than those who don’t. And those who have better access to child care, stable housing and well-resourced neighborhoods grow up healthier than those who don’t. It’s our duty at Michigan Medicine to confront these issues in our own backyard.”
Multiple ways to help
Thomas’ job allows her to take a three-pronged approach to improving lives.
As director of Community Benefit, she ensures that the organization provides services that make an impact in the region. Her team tracks dozens of community programs — such as Meals on Wheels and Project Healthy Schools — that aid thousands of residents. She then reports that information to the federal government to “capture the remarkable ways our colleagues are drawn to different causes.”
The department also performs a Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) every three years.
“THE CHNA is all about listening to our community and acting upon their concerns,” Thomas said. “If there’s a program we can provide or a support group we can create, we do it.”
Finally, Thomas’ advocacy work allows her to work with legislators to ensure they are informed before making important decisions.
“At Michigan Medicine, we have a unique resource — our talented faculty and staff — who can serve as experts on important policy decisions,” Thomas said. “From social workers to doctors and nurses, I help connect those experts one-on-one with policymakers, or work with partners to facilitate our experts testifying at public hearings. We put the power of our organization to work in order to help everyone in the community.”
In the end, Thomas said her job is all about amplifying the voices of those who aren’t heard as often or as loudly as they should be.
“So many members of our community tend to be marginalized for one reason or another,” Thomas said. “Whether it’s their financial status, sexual orientation, disability — or any number of identifying characteristics. My team and I try and give them the tools they need to make their own voices heard or have those with power speak out on their behalf.”
The changes she fights for don’t always take place overnight — but they do happen often enough.
“Just recently, we conducted focus groups for new moms in the area that gave them a place to learn, lean on each other and learn about additional resources,” Thomas said. “And every legislative session, we’ll get a victory or two that we fought hard for. So while victories don’t come every day, I see them frequently — and that makes me privileged to play a role like this at Michigan Medicine. I’ll never take it for granted.”
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