By Antonio Caro, Development Officer
“The new Melhek that goes to college wants to take her degree and build healthier communities back in Ethiopia. That’s my goal – to take Mary’s Center’s model and change lives in my homeland. I want to empower the youth – just like Mary’s Center empowered me” – Melhek Addis, Teen Program Alumna, age 20.
Melhek was in elementary school when her mother got sick. Cancer—a harsh reality. Despite her deteriorating health, her mother’s will to live and commitment to family remained strong. “Not only did my mother help raise her nine siblings, but she kept our family running and made sure our education came first.”
As her mother’s sickness progressed, Melhek was forced to grow up. At just 13 years old, she was balancing school, hospital visits, and helping at home. And then, the news came. Her father needed to leave Ethiopia. “At that time, the government oppressed freedom of expression,” said Melhek. “Since my father criticized the ruling party, he was targeted as a criminal.” Melhek’s father needed to continue working to ensure his wife received adequate care and his daughters remained in school. He couldn’t risk getting imprisoned. So, in 2013, he came to the United States.
The plan seemed simple. Melhek’s father would travel first, followed by Melhek and then her family. “Before I left, I was nervous, afraid of the uncertainty,” recalled Melhek. She arrived in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2013. Her mother never made it. That year, she lost her battle with cancer.
After her mother’s death, Melhek was devasted but determined to excel. She felt alone in a foreign land and struggled with this adjustment. At school, bullying and discrimination was the norm. “Other students would make horrible assumptions,” she said, “they assumed I came from huts and starvation. I was frustrated.” Melhek needed a community.
That’s when she discovered Mary’s Center.
Melhek discovered Mary’s Center in her sophomore year in high school. “At first, I was hesitant” she recounted. “However, when I arrived, I was greeted with warmth by the staff.” That afternoon, Melhek met other Ethiopian students and encountered teens from different backgrounds. Each had their own stories, struggles, and dreams. “I’ll never forget that day. I found my safe space where I could grow and learn.”
Mary’s Center’s Teen Program became part of her family. From professional panels to college prep courses, the program built her self-confidence and kept her on track for success. “My mother would have loved Mary’s Center,” said Melhek, “I know she would have been grateful for their support.”
“The program helped me discover my love for public health. My mentors, Kony and Katya, helped me apply to summer employment opportunities within Mary’s Center. Through these experiences, I saw firsthand the impact Mary’s Center’s care coordination had on the entire community. I knew this was my future career.”
Melhek found her purpose.
Today, Melhek is proudly studying to obtain a degree in Health Services at Trinity University. When asked what her mother would say, Melhek answered, “She would be so proud. After I graduate, I plan to get my master’s degree in Public Health. I want to use my education and Mary’s Center’s Social Change Model to open a community health center back in Ethiopia.” Thanks to the trust and support from community members like you, Melhek is determined to achieve her goals – with the memory of her mother fortifying her every step of the way.
Every year, lives such as Melhek’s are changed. With your support, more students and families can experience Mary’s Center’s transformative power. Since 2017, our Teen After School Program has held a 100% college acceptance rate. Your generosity strengthens and emboldens the next generation of future leaders!