Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Looking back on 25 years

April 3, 2013

Time is interesting. When our oldest child turned 30, I was incredulous. How could I be the parent of a 30-year-old when I felt as if 30 were my age? This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Washington Hospital Teen Outreach I began in 1988. I am deeply grateful to the many, many young people I’ve been honored to teach in that time; the number of adults who have supported this mission are too numerous to count. They also receive my heartfelt gratitude.

The Washington Hospital Ball this weekend (7 p.m. Saturday at Southpointe Golf Club) supports our outreach. Some of our peer educators and peer educator alumni wrote their thoughts for today’s column. Their current ages range from 15 to 34. Most of them were part of our Ask Mary Jo Advisory Board. As always, I present their words unedited. I am intensely proud of these young people – they and others like them are the true legacy of those 25 years.

Quinn Wells: Teen Outreach has helped me because it trained me to think outside of the box. It brought together a diverse group of teens who all were very driven and willing to try and do things that we probably never would have done without the direction of Mary Jo and the wonderful staff at that time. Because of Teen Outreach, I have memories and friends for life.

Mike Matthews: Mary Jo affected me because when I was in high school she was the first adult to see me for Michael. Others couldn’t get past my outward appearance of cerebral palsy. This gave me hope that I could be more than what others thought. Thank you, Mary Jo.

Mercedes Hull: Mary Jo is not only a counselor and a teen activist. She was like another mother to me. She’s helped me grow from a young girl to a women. She mattered in my high school career so much. She’s a wonderful role model for instilling so much belief in me! She will do whatever it takes for her Teen Outreach attendees, her staff, and her family (which is, of course, all of us). She makes sure we are all taken care of, and she is always there to listen and to give a shoulder to cry on. They say “a true leader has to have a genuine open-door policy so that people are not afraid to approach for any reason.” That’s Mary Jo! There’s not a lot of people out there like her, and I am thankful and blessed to have had so many experiences with you, Mary Jo, and with your staff. I’m happy to still have a person like you in my life.

Keith Winkelman: The Teen Outreach and Mary Jo have affected me in many ways. Just one of those ways is that through her, I’ve learned the value of experience and advice from my peers. Through the peer education program, we learned from Mary Jo and taught our peers with her, as she believed this was a great way for young people to learn. She was definitely right about this. Mary Jo is a perfect example of how love, perseverance and understanding can make such a huge impact on the lives of so many. No amount of thanks will ever be enough for the impact she’s had on our lives.

Liz Glowark Kerchner: Mary Jo, Heather and all of the staff of the Teen Outreach have changed my life by being my friends, mentors, teachers, mothers, and biggest supporters for as long as I have know them. Heather and the rest of the staff supported me when I was most vulnerable, and the programs of the Teen Outreach gave me an opportunity to excel and feel safe. Mary Jo has continued to look out for me by always going above and beyond the call of duty. The Teen Outreach exists for many purposes, but in my mind, the core mission has been to provide love to anyone that needs it.

Emmett Patterson: Mary Jo and the Teen Outreach affected me because they gave me a job at a time in my life when no one else would. And in doing so, they became part of my family. In fact, I should thank Mary Jo in advance for all of my future careers because her commitment to diversity and inclusion inspired me to pay it forward and do the same in my life.

Katherine Stains: I had a baby in high school, and Mary Jo and her staff were always there for me. When I was interested in childbirth education, Mary Jo took me to conferences and helped me get started. Now my “baby” is 15 and I have my bachelor’s and master’s and I work with pregnant teens. I would not be where I am today without Mary Jo. Thank you!

Chelsie Kelley: Peer education has helped forge me into the person that I am today. In college I end up helping people every day if they need more knowledge about anything – relationships, peer pressure… the education that I have gained will last the rest of my life.

Janell Mallory: Mary Jo means so much to me. She has been in my life since I was in seventh grade. I am now 31 and have obtained my bachelor’s degree in social work, which she has been one of my main supporters and encouragers. Mary Jo has been like a second mother to me, making herself available to me day and night. I would like to say thank you to Mary Jo for loving me and seeing the potential in me. With the help of God, my family and Mary Jo is what has shaped me to become the women I am today.

Domenique Tripoli: Teen Outreach has been there for so many young people – including myself – through good times and bad. They do more for the community and its young people than most people even know, and they are a shining beacon of hope for children, teens and adults alike. I want to thank them for all the good that they have done these last 25 years. There were so many times when I felt like no one wanted to hear me or treat me like a real person, but Mary Jo and the Teen Outreach staff have always been there for me.

Steven Becker: Mary Jo helped me become a better educator. Being a peer educator taught me how to teach others. It taught me better communication skills, especially when it comes to the tough stuff

Courtney Wilkins: Mary Jo had such a lasting effect on me because she taught me a lot while I participated in the program. I always appreciated the fact that she was very straightforward and never “sugar-coated” topics about sex for the youth in the program. Mary Jo always could make me laugh. She also had an amazing way of making you wish you were one of her kids. I don’t know how she did it, but I’m grateful for her guidance and nurturing. I believe the program and Mary Jo helped me grow into the confident woman I am today.

Katie Dessart: Teen Outreach has given me a family of friends that were there for me when others weren’t. Simple as that.

Violet Lawson: Teen Outreach has affected me because after just making it through my first semester in college I’ve realized that by working with and having experienced Teen Outreach programs I have an advantage over my peers. Because believe it or not, not every area, not every school has programs like the Teen Outreach that teach these things. So it’s important to realize that the Teen Outreach doesn’t just help students where they’re at; it also helps them wherever they’re going.

Tammy Okorn: My parents never talked to me about sex education. Before I found Mary Jo and her teachings, I had to learn everything by myself. Not very surprisingly, most of what I learned was only partially true or not true at all. Talking to parents about this stuff can be scary and awkward. Every child is going to be curious and want to know things, and it’s nice to have an adult that the children can trust and go to when they have a question. Mary Jo knows what children want to know and what they need to know from talking to them and actually listening. We need more adults like her around.

Alex Nikolopoulos: Mary Jo’s program opened my eyes. I learned so much as a peer educator. I am a school counselor today because Mary Jo inspired me to reach young people.

Serena Green: Teen Outreach has given me a sense of love and family I have never before felt with people I can relate to, and that, with all of my heart, I can call friends.

Logan Weakland: I think Teen Outreach more than deserves the time it has been given, and I hope it has nothing but more time in the future. It is a wonderful program that allows young people like me to give back in whatever ways they can: whether it be from pushing buttons on a CD player or bringing attention to those who feel alone in this busy and evolving world.

Raelynn Marie Sanders: The center is like my home, and the people there are like a second family to me. They’re there for me more than my real family could ever be.



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