Mary Pieper (Photo by Emily Benson)
Mary Pieper (Photo by Emily Benson)

The Evangelist continues the Catholic Voices interview series with Mary Pieper, executive director of the Maternity & Early Childhood Foundation (MECF), a not-for-profit organization in New York State that has provided funds to community-based agencies located in high-need areas across the state to serve low-income expectant and new parents for 30 years. Only two weeks after joining the foundation, Pieper’s work shifted completely as her office went remote from the growing pandemic. While her office is different, her mission to help mothers in need hasn’t changed. From her early years working as a therapist to serving on a range of community boards, Pieper is passionate about being a part of a community and helping others in need. Emily Benson from The Evangelist sat down with Pieper to discuss her work, her faith and the impact of a mother’s love.

TE: Tell me about the Maternity & Early Childhood Foundation.

MP: The concept and mission is to provide leadership, education and resources to community-based agencies across the state that work toward supporting new and expecting parents (and) pregnancy through early childhood. We fund on average 16 community-based programs that really represent a snapshot of the state; they’re all different based on their demographics. We have programs in New York City, some are in Buffalo and the western part of the state, and some all the way up into the Adirondacks. I feel like there’s a richness to that. They develop the best practices based on the communities they serve and then we have the great fortune of being able to weave all that together. We aim toward three major outcomes: healthy babies, helping parents create a nurturing environment for children and helping children become ready to learn. All of the organizations focus on that in different ways. There’s a wonderful range: outreach services, home visiting — this has had to shift at the moment because of COVID  — and everything from prenatal to postpartum care, assisting them getting to medical appointments, parent-education counseling and group sessions. The areas of focus could be things such as parent-child bonding or breastfeeding. There’s crisis intervention and case management as well because most of these women are at risk and facing dire circumstances.

TE: How has COVID-19 impacted MECF?

MP: We have been seeing how these programs have pivoted, how they figured out through creative problem solving how to reach these families during this pandemic, because so many rely on these home visits, or transportation to bring them to parenting classes. One of our New York City programs said they were doing pop-up food pantries. That was where the need was because many people couldn’t get to a store. They’re figuring out ways to meet those basic needs of their clients. One of the major things we did was provide additional resource support. … Our situation as a state-funded organization has meant we have not been in a normal position of being able to fund the organizations consistently since COVID struck. So we’ve been trying to keep in touch with them over the last six months and sending along whatever resource information we could get our hands on. Some of that is webinars and training for staff or how to adapt their service delivery. One of the things we will be doing a lot more of is connecting our programs to each other through email and virtual communication and working toward creating a peer-sharing network. We realized we hear from a program in the North Country and we hear from somebody downstate and they’re all coming up with different ways to connect. Think about community and grassroots organizations where their clients are pregnant; babies don’t wait for pandemics, so we have to figure out how to get them the services they need. It can’t wait. So, some of the things we have needed to assist with were how to come up with funds to help (organizations) develop digital capacity, like getting a tablet or getting track phones. These are often women in situations where they don’t have basic tools that so many of us take for granted now that so much is happening virtually. When you can’t put food on the table or get to your doctor’s appointment, and you don’t have a tablet, or you might not even have a phone, it’s down to that level of meeting basic needs.

TE: How does it feel to be a part of that?

MP: It feels like an honor. Often people ask, how did you end up in this job? So as a segue, my absolute greatest joy and greatest challenge of my life and the greatest job I ever had is being a mom. That mission and this work really resonate with me because it is about helping create opportunities for these women to step into that space. And I’m such a believer in the magnificence of the role of being a mother, so whatever we can do for these community groups who are helping reach out and help these women who want to create a family ... our job is to connect the dots.

TE: Tell me a bit about your upbringing.

MP: I am one of six in a very large Catholic family from Maryland. I always say to people I have 52 first cousins and that is a throwback to the ’60s and early ’70s, but it has defined who I am. My parents really raised all of us to focus on how to serve others and be part of the community. I remember my mom, who still at 85 is an incredible force to be reckoned with, who still volunteers like 60 hours a week at what we call “the center,” but it’s basically a thrift center/food pantry that is run through St. Vincent de Paul in her parish. And every single time any of us go down to visit in Maryland, the center is like our extended family. We all volunteer there. She always said to us “you’re part of a community.” You can’t grow up in a big family and not get that. So cultivating relationships and figuring out how to reach out and “hold hands” with others, to do good, that’s how I grew up, it’s very intuitive for me.

TE: What did you do before MECF?

MP: I got my master’s in social work at the University of Pennsylvania in Philly. It was great because it was such an eye-opener being in Philadelphia working with such diverse communities. In my early days, I worked as a clinician with at-risk adolescents and that led me into becoming a family therapist because you ideally want to work with the whole family, not just the teen. And then I transitioned into running non-profits and various programs at non-profits. Being a clinician in the crisis intervention world really got me thinking about how we can prevent some of these situations, and I found that my calling was to get into the prevention area. I have always enjoyed trying to look at things differently and ask how we can come up with some solutions that might possibly have a positive impact on the intervention end of things. I ended up doing consulting because folks I met in different community organizations, in the Boston area and then New York when I moved here 20 plus years ago, reached out and started asking me to talk to them about donor cultivation and board development. I wasn’t planning on it but it just happened and it became a big piece of my professional life alongside serving as executive director for some organizations.

TE: How has your faith impacted you, specifically during your time at MECF?

MP: My belief in the importance of serving others is probably the biggest way in which my faith has been present in my work, not just here at MECF, but during my entire career in the nonprofit sector. My life is centered around the role of caring, of nurturing growth, and of being able to share the gifts I have been given to the best of my ability. I have been so blessed to be a mom, and that very special role in life has been infused by a deep sense of spirituality. I like to think that through that I am able to connect easily, and with compassion, with those women and families we are supporting through our work across the state.

TE: What do you wish more people knew about this organization?

MP: What makes people want to consider funding or volunteering or just sharing good word of mouth or publicity about something? I always say it goes back to the mission. I do donor cultivation work, so I always ask people, “Why? What moves you, what creates passion for you around the mission?” And I think with MECF we are all about moms and babies and that’s something that every single person has a connection to, right? We all had or have a mom, or we are one or are related to one, so tapping into that universal truth about motherhood and the value of creating a healthy start is where we start. So if we each can do whatever we can to create a healthy, loving, nurturing, successful experience in pregnancy and early childhood for these families, it will have an impact that will last a lifetime.

TE: Do you have a story that stuck out to you from your time as executive director?

MP: One of the only programs I got the opportunity to visit before the pandemic struck was out in Jamestown — a parenting session with one of the moms. (Her) baby was on the floor and crawling around and the staff member was trying to gently guide and educate this mom about interacting with the baby. And all of this resonated with me. It was just a comfortable setting, so the baby kind of crawled over to me and I just started doing what would come naturally to me, which was to share and say what I was doing with this new mom, just like what I would do if it was one of my nieces or one of my friends. It was sitting on the floor with that young mom and that adorable child and seeing how hard this mom is working to learn what she needed to learn, to figure out how to manage her child’s behavior and feel comfortable expressing her love, it really left an impact on me. It’s not about what we read, it wasn’t just about somebody’s website, but being in the room with this young woman who was so courageous. She doesn’t have a lot of supports in her life, and she’s reaching out and taking classes, she’s seeking help in order to do the best she can for this little girl.

TE: MECF is really about helping mothers. can you tell me why a mother’s love especially is so strong and impactful?

MP: Wow! Responding to that question could be a whole book. To me, it’s about the incredible bond that is forged when a mother is given the opportunity to practice unconditional love. Whether a woman is gifted with the chance to carry a baby in her womb, or to adopt a baby, being a mom is about expressing love toward another. In the work that MECF supports through grants to community organizations, the focus is on women who are pregnant and/or have given birth. A mother’s love grows each time it is shared. Having a baby to care for, to nurture, protect, teach, guide and love, offers endless opportunities for a woman to grow as well. The miracle of love as embodied in motherhood is that despite the hardships, sacrifices, and the tireless nature of parenting, women can touch the beauty of unconditional love every time they interact with their child. The result of being able to offer another human being the chance to be loved this way can have a magnificent and lasting impact. It can shape not only our immediate families but all of those we come into contact with. That kind of love can change communities, and it is through our raising of our children that we take part in that