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Wellness Wonder Woman – Bridging the Gaps to a Healthy America

maria-mendezMaria Mendez can’t help feeling proud each time she looks out her office window at the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. More than a gateway to her native West Dallas, it’s a symbolic crossover to her successful present.

At 42, Mendez is enjoying life as Aetna Inc.’s director of community relations for the mid-America region. Managing regional public involvement for a leading health insurer drives Mendez out of town at least once a week to ensure the health care needs of underserved communities in 17 states are being met. Among her responsibilities are helping organizations apply for grants to fund obesity-control programs and ensuring hospitals integrate best practices for equality in health care for people of all ethnicities, sexes and ages.

“It hasn’t always been easy for me. I’ve struggled,” the raspy-voiced Mendez says, giving me a sidelong glance with a raised eyebrow as she leans back into the booth of a dimly lit pizzeria in Oak Cliff ’s Bishop Arts District. “But, overall, I’ve come, I’ve conquered. I’m in a good place.”

Vivid in Mendez’s mind is the moment when she was filling out a scholarship application at age 17 and learned her mother was raising a family of four on $14,000. This reality motivated Mendez to pursue a college degree against all odds. After graduating L.G. Pinkston High School, it would be 12 years before Mendez received her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northwood University in Cedar Hill.

Mendez began her studies at El Centro College while working full time at a check-cashing store and later as a funds management specialist for Bank of America. After marrying her husband of 19 years, she worked as a group sales assistant for leading corn-flour manufacturer Gruma. When she and her husband decided it was time to start a family, the need for affordable health insurance prompted Mendez to look for work in such sector.

She joined Cigna HealthCare as a sales marketing assistant in 1997. Mendez worked her way up to a sales client service strategist to manage accounts in the manufacturing, distribution and waste management market. “I knew, on the second day as an assistant, that my calling was to be there to service and manage [those] accounts — it’s where the majority of [Hispanic] people work,” a gleamy-eyed Mendez says. “I was able to relate to their needs and better explain the benefits so they could take advantage of them.”

A first-generation Mexican American, Mendez has always felt a strong sense of duty to translate Spanish and English for others because she grew up doing this for her mother. This quality, along with her upbringings in an underserved community, gave her an upper hand as the health care industry expanded efforts toward diverse market engagement.

The benefits packets and communication tools that are nowadays automati- cally translated into multiple languages were nonexistent when Mendez entered the health care sector. During her nine years at Cigna, she was part of the evolution toward Spanish-language collateral. At Aetna, she helped initiate the company’s Spanish glossary, Mendez says.

Family Matters

Outside of work, Mendez gives back to the community by serving on the boards of the Dallas Women’s Foundation, Community Council of Greater Dallas and charter school KIPP DFW Truth Academy. She is also member of the Hispanic 100 and Leadership Dallas Alumni class of 2010.

The most critical item on her daily agenda, however, is teaming with her husband to raise their son, 14, and daughter, 12, to be good stewards of society.“I want to be the one to provide them the guidance,” Mendez says. “I don’t want anybody else doing that job for me.” For Mendez, this means finely balancing career and community with a traditional female role at home. “I’m still very domestic; I do laundry, I clean my own house, I enjoy cooking,” she says, noting that her way of life is praised by some while seen as regressive by others.

“I want to be independent,” Mendez adds, with a no-nonsense look on her face as she arches her brow once again. “I want to go out and do [work] for myself and be accountable, but it doesn’t mean I’ve lost my femininity and that I don’t want to be taken care of …or be a wife or be a mom.I mean, why the hell can’t I do it all?”

Mendez’s take-life-by-the-horns, can-do attitude is partly a by product of her family’s support. One of the best gifts she has received is a Wonder Woman figurine from her son when he was 4. “That was just so inspiring,” Mendez says of the figurine she keeps on her work desk. “I was like, ‘My God, my child thinks I can do it all. I am his Wonder Woman.’”

“The confidence that gives me to walk out the door every day and … know that no matter how early or late I leave or how long I’m gone, [my family] still regards me in that way— honey, I don’t need anything else,” Mendez says, her voice breaking off as she sheds a tear.“There’s no pay moneywise, no bonus, no reward— nothing—that is more satisfying.”

Read on for more on Mendez’s contributions toward a healthier America and what she’s aiming for next.

Infórmate DFW: What do you like most about your job? Maria Mendez: The opportunity to apply my experience to everyday challenges and have positive outcomes. I have prepared most of my career for this job and enjoy the collaboration with internal and external partners. Every day brings something different, from working with a children’s nonprofit organization in building an obesity program to collaborating with a major city to change its health outlook and working with colleagues on a strategy to engage diversity and inclusiveness in our business opportunities.

IDFW: What are Aetna’s major initiatives going forward, and how is the Latino community reflected in these? MM: Aetna’s initiatives are to provide best-in-class service to the 18 million members we serve and beyond. We are looking to grow the company and create a stable business through health care reform. Being informed will not be enough in the years ahead— for the cost of health care to be manageable, everyone will have to engage and take action to lead healthier lives. Aetna is committed to health and economic reform to get our country back on track. The Latino community continues to be important and critical to our efforts, as it is a large, growing population that needs to be better informed and engaged in their well-being.

IDFW: Why is it important for you to volunteer in the nonprofit boards you currently serve? MM: For so long, I did not feel I had anything to offer any organization until I got involved and allowed my experience to lend a hand. I’ve found that my upbringings and my knowledge and understanding of health care provide many organizations the resources necessary to move ahead. It is critical that we all, as a community, get involved and support any way we can to have better outcomes.

IDFW: What are some of the challenges Latinos face in obtaining leadership roles within our com- munity? MM: I feel very fortunate to have been raised in Dallas; many leaders have paved way for our access to education, careers and an opportunity to get involved in our community and continue their great work for generations to come. However, we can improve in development and inclusion of diverse leadership within the Hispanic community to support unified efforts to move ahead.

IDFW: What goals do you have yet to unfold? MM: Someday, I would like a seat on the Dallas Independent School District Board. Being a product of DISD and achieving the success I have thus far, I would like to make a difference. I don’t have a solution to the entire education problem, but I do have the navigation skills and an understanding of the population and its challenges to help make the system a better place for our students and for parents to succeed.

IDFW: What advice can you give Latinas on balancing family and career? MM: Take care of you: You can only care and do for others if you are well. Set your priorities, know your limitations, and stay true to yourself!

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