Saving a Life to Live a Dream: The Story of CNN Hero Award Nominee Martha Ryan

By: Ken Streater | Leadership | Personal Stories

As one of 13 children raised in an Irish Catholic family, Martha grew up poor in San Mateo, California. Donations from her Catholic school at times kept the family in food. One Christmas when Martha was a child, two philanthropic strangers knocked on their door and gave the Ryan’s two bags of toys, allowing the kids to escape the feeling that Santa might be punishing them for being bad. The family survived with even bare necessities a challenge. One cold winter morning the woman driving the school carpool came to pick Martha and her brothers and sisters up. “My mother told her Tim, my oldest brother, was not going,” recalled Martha. “When asked if he was sick, my mom replied ‘no, he can’t find his other shoe’. In spite of this my parents were very generous, and always volunteered. I learned a lot from my parents about taking care of others even in time of need.”

In her early 20’s Martha moved to Africa, where she worked as a nurse, educating the women of small villages in Somalia about preventive health care. It was there that she had indelibly stamped in her the belief that a true community approach – where all mothers, sisters, and strangers work together –to health care crisis was most effective. “I will never forget the smell of Africa as I stepped off the plane,” said Martha. “I remember thinking that I had made this happen, going to the Peace Corps, graduating from college, and then signing up for this position to help sick and poor people. It cemented in my mind that anyone could do this, that anyone could live their dreams.”

In the late 1980’s Martha moved back to the U.S. to earn a full nursing degree. While volunteering at a local community health clinic she came to know pregnant homeless women. “In 1989, I was a volunteer nurse working at a homeless shelter,” recalled Martha. “I went out one evening onto the streets and there were three women at different stages of pregnancy and not one was getting prenatal care.” Martha drew on her experience in remote third world countries and compared it to the streets of San Francisco. “I had planned to return to Africa to set up maternal child health programs in the developing world, and little did I know that there was a developing world right here is San Francisco.” She applied for a grant to start a program based on that precept and, shocking to her, received it. With expert advice from fellow medical practitioners, social workers, and the sponsor of the grant, she started the Homeless Prenatal Program in 1990. “I saw a need that no one else was addressing, that no one else was doing anything about. And, a lot of people helped me write the grant and prepare for this program,” explained Martha. “Even though I was nervous and unsure about creating and running Homeless Prenatal, there was no way I could say no to the award. I would have let too many people down.”

“I realized the state of pregnancy was a wonderful window of opportunity for a woman to turn her life around,” explained Martha. “They needed more than just prenatal care. They needed housing. They needed help with addiction. Some needed to get away from a batterer. They had lived their lives in poverty and they needed help to overcome these barriers.”

“I am a reckless optimist. But I never really wanted to save the world. My intentions were not grand and still are relatively simple today. I just acted on something that pulled at my heart. And, I am well served by that connection and my optimism when obstacles come along. I remember a few years after Homeless Prenatal opened and we needed to move into a bigger facility which meant doubling our mortgage payment. Someone asked me ‘Are you worried?’ and I replied ‘Should I be?’ While there are things that keep me up at night, I just keep plowing through believing something good is going to happen.”

The Homeless Prenatal Program center is located in a typical San Francisco mixed-use residential and commercial neighborhood, with rundown buildings, barred windows and doorways, and people standing on corners waiting for a bus or light or something to change. Inside the center, things are different. It is bright and alive, and change is taking place. Nearly 4,000 families in the Bay Area have been helped by Homeless Prenatal. It operates with a $6 million dollar annual budget and a staff of approximately 70 people. Over half of the employees working at Homeless Prenatal have overcome lives of drug addiction, abuse, and/or homelessness as former clients of the program and now counsel and help others as they have been helped.

After a decade of struggling with addiction, Judy Crawford’s first legitimate steps to recovery and providing a better life for her baby boy started with help from Homeless Prenatal. “I was an addict for years, and could not escape that cycle,” explained Judy. “My little boy was taken from me by the State and placed with relatives. I got arrested. I spent a lot of nights out in the cold. I remember many, many times just walking back and forth, all night, waiting for the sun and for it to warm up. I am not proud of that time but I came through it. I found this place (Homeless Prenatal) and got turned around.”

“This place saved me and helped me get back my son. I have a good job and my own home, which is a long way from where I was,” said Judy. “I was given love and a chance at the Homeless Prenatal Program, and made to feel worthwhile. Now I am stronger, help other people that were in the same situation as me, and teach my son how to succeed. I do it all one day at a time.”

“Intention to do good, to be good, and to feel good propels me forward. Pay attention to how and why you are doing what you do,” said Martha. “In other words, I ask myself ‘What is the meaning of my work?’ It is also important to remember this: It is not about me, it is about the world. Vision is best when there is no ego involved. It is not about just one person. But there is irony even in that. Because giving to someone else is the most selfish thing in the world. I get so much more in return when I give to others. Ultimately, if your intention has integrity and you know it is the right thing to do, your intention propels you forward. Then one person touches other like-minded people and a movement is created.”

“Having hope takes putting one foot in front of the other; slow and steady wins the race. That is how we built Homeless Prenatal,” explained Martha.  “If you want to do something, do it. It takes commitment and moving forward one step at a time. Little by little, little accomplishments build on themselves and that propels ideas and people forward. Barriers will arise but it is important to keep them in context. They become manageable when held up next to the culmination of accomplishments.”

Mother Teresa once said “Never worry about the numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” With Martha Ryan, so began a journey where a small ripple of help turned into an ocean of care. “I have learned so much from our organization and the people we help. People don’t want a handout. They want to do it for themselves, and their kids. So we best help people by helping them believe in themselves. Each person is borne with their own unique greatness, their own strengths. In some cases, this gets lost in some type of loss. In some cases it is just what you were born into; poverty can be an accident at birth. Their environment leads to despair, and hope is lost. If you don’t have hope, why put one foot in front of the other? But we don’t judge people or their situation. We show people we can be trusted and they begin to see the world a little differently. One person gives another person hope and the cycle is stopped.”

“I have often heard the phrase ‘People need to pull themselves up by the boot straps.’ I respond to this comment by asking ‘But what if they have no boots?’ But people want to do something good, to give meaning to their lives. So we give them boots by showing we can be trusted, giving them time, teaching them skills, and inspiring them to move forward. As they act on this opportunity to shine they then become leaders, to their children, to their community.”

“Before I started Homeless Prenatal, I worked as a nurse at a local hospital. I used to wonder why I would work all week and then go to volunteer at a local clinic on my day off, but I always left the clinic inches off the ground,” shared Martha. “I am filled with joy when I help someone else, and particularly when that help means giving a child a chance. And, I see this joy every day. When people volunteer and give they feel so much better. They also often discover their purpose for being on earth. When you are on that path and you build momentum through little accomplishments, nothing can stop you.”