“If you’re at a place where you don’t have to worry about health equity, amplify those voices who don’t have that.”
Although Maricela Lopez doesn’t come from a health equity background, her inclination for compassion and helping others—inspired by her parents—has made her a natural fit for her work at HealthBegins. After getting her BA from CSUN, Maricela worked in a variety of roles, including time as a nanny, after school teacher, and an assistant preschool teacher. While working as an executive assistant for a community foundation in Denver, she recognized both the inequities around her as well as her position of privilege and the responsibilities those privileges come with. This has set her on a mission to help struggling parents get the affordable high-quality child care they need. Here she walks us through the values she learned from her immigrant parents, and the startling moment that sparked her determination to provide the best childcare even for families with the fewest resources.
Tell us a little bit about people who shaped your values.
Definitely my mother. While I was growing up, my mother worked with students of all ages, mainly with students who were Spanish speaking. I have a background in education and early childhood education and it’s mostly influenced by her. She always took me around the school district and I would help her during the summer, reading to ESL elementary students who didn’t have access to summer school. She always taught me, no matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter the language you speak, you should always have access to a great education. And she made it happen for a lot of students. A lot of her former students who have kids now still reach out to her to tell her all their accomplishments. She makes sure that she is available 24/7, even now that she’s retired.
They would call her at random times of the day and say,: “I have this exam, I need help.” She goes on calls and helps them with whatever they need. For her, graduating high school was mandatory and achieving a higher education was the main goal. And she really instilled that value of education in us. And I love her mentality, if you already have a “no” go get a “yes.” You know, you just gotta work hard and you absolutely can succeed. And that’s a huge value that I hold close, I can do anything I want to; you know, the resources are out there. I just have to do a little bit of digging and finding.
Who inspires you?
My parents, they worked really hard to get where they’re at. They left Mexico and came to the United States in the 80s. They came from poverty in Mexico and they worked really hard to get to where they are now. My dad was a garbage truck driver my whole life. He and my mom both worked their butts off and somehow they still made time for us. I’m the youngest of three kids. They helped us through college, they got us a place to live. They definitely helped us a lot and continue to this day.
What about you? What’s your next steps?
I’ve been accepted into the MPA program in Nonprofit Management at California State University, Northridge. I’m really excited about that. I want my children to see that obtaining a master’s degree is within their reach—that there’s an infinite amount of possibilities and goals worth reaching.
And what do you hope to do with that?
I’ve always been a big early childhood advocate. So with this degree, I would be able to maybe create my own programs or run a program to help low-income families and children get the resources that they need to thrive in education. That’s always been my biggest dream, whether it’s to create after school programs, like the Boys and Girls Club or daycares, just so families can have access to it and be able to afford it, that they’d be able to send their children to a safe place and know that they’re getting a great education, know that their kids are taken care of, know that they’re valued. It’s always been a big aspiration of mine.
And this goes back to the values that your mom kind of instilled in you, right?
Absolutely. But aside from where my mom stands with education and my own background, I used to live with my sister and I would help her out by watching her baby while she worked. And after I graduated and moved out, she had her youngest and had to find childcare for both of the kids. One day when I was visiting, she asked if I could pick them up from daycare, which was at this woman’s house who lived a couple streets away. And I picked them up and it broke my heart to see the place where my nephews spent most of their time. This woman had a living room that was like caged off, and the TV was on. And the youngest, he was maybe one at the time, he came running up to me and he was soiled. You could tell that he had been like that for a while. And I’m like, “What is this?”
And it broke my heart that they were just, you know, they turned on the TV and that was their childcare. They weren’t playing, they weren’t learning. I never wanted to see my nephews in that place. Because they deserve better. All those kids deserved better. So, I asked my sister, “Did you know that this is happening?” And she was like, “I can’t afford anything else. That’s all I can afford right now.” And it broke my heart that, you know, she’s not the only person that faces that—living in LA, a lot of people can’t afford daycare. That’s the reality. It’s so expensive. And if you do get daycare there’s no guarantee that it’s going to be good. So my wish is to create those resources for families and to make sure that they have access to it no matter where they live.
Yeah. That’s my goal. And it’ll happen.
What advice would you offer others striving to advance health equity?
Offer help to the people who are looking to solve it. If you’re at a place where you don’t have to worry about health equity, amplify those voices who don’t have that.
That’s great advice.
Bring them to the table, offer them a seat at the table. Always. That’s my biggest thing. If you have the resources to get the word out, share them with others.
What brings you meaning in your life outside of work?
I’m going to be cheesy, but my family. I’m obsessed with my kids. I love my children. They’re at a really fun age right now. They’re five, two, and five months old and it’s amazing. My husband, of course, he’s a rock star and my biggest supporter.
Tell me about him.
Oh my gosh. So my husband is a super talented, naturally gifted overachiever.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it?
My first job was working at Zumiez. It’s a skateboarding store in the mall. And what did I learn from it? I learned that they don’t care for kids who are straight outta high school. That you’re replaceable at the drop of a hat.
What are your favorite films, books, or podcasts?
I love the movie My Girl. I named my daughter after the main character. We’re big Back to the Future fans here. I’m staring at a Lego DeLorean right now. <Laugh> My favorite book, which ironically is also one of my favorite movies, is The Perks of Being A Wallflower.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a teacher, just like my mama.
What’s one thing you’re learning now? And why is it important?
One thing I’m learning now is that life is too short. If you’re not happy with where you’re at, go do something else. Go do what you love, be around the people you love.
Vsem Yenovkian is the Communications Manager at HealthBegins.