In celebration of Women’s History Month, Mercy College is recognizing accomplished women making a difference in health care.
For Pela Terry CNR GS ’14, Ed.D., leading a nonprofit is her way of paying forward all the support she received as a child.
When she was five years old, Terry’s family moved into a housing project in Chicago. Her family was a stabilizing force that instilled strong values, so she never got pulled into drugs or gangs. At home, she learned the importance of faith from her grandmother and the value of being involved in her community from an aunt. At school, her guidance counselors saw her potential and introduced her to new things, like studying languages.
“When I look back at what pushed me forward, it was support in small ways like that,” Terry said. “The world wasn't our apartment or the projects anymore. As the world became bigger, the possibilities became bigger. I know now that if kids don’t have that support, it's much harder for them. All these people believed in me, so I felt that I needed to pay it forward.”
Terry is now the executive director of the Atlantic Street Center (ASC), a nonprofit organization in Seattle, Washington, that supports children and families in need—providing services in behavioral health, early learning, youth development and education and gender-based violence. ASC sets up innovative programs to meet the needs of children and families such as the first kinship care program in Seattle to support non-traditional parents—such as foster parents or grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren.
“At the core, we address the social determinants of health,” Terry said. “These are where the disparities are, where access to health care and health information prevents people from being as well as they could be. And these are what really need to be addressed so that we have equity and access for low-income families, particularly African American BIPOC, which is the population we serve.”
As a testament to ASC’s impact, Terry shared the story of Denisha Dunston, a young single mother of two who started receiving services at ASC while pregnant with her second child. Staff connected her with housing, a doctor and counseling services for postpartum depression. They helped her sign up for food stamps, ASC classes on financial literacy and career skills, a high school diploma program and job training. Over time, Dunston started volunteering at the center and was recently hired as the parent support specialist. “She’s now a successful human services professional with thriving children,” said Terry.
Terry overcame her own challenges along the way. A first-generation college student, she worked at a group home while in college to pay for her tuition. Then, she worked in nonprofit management at different organizations before joining ASC in 2021. She was recently featured in Marquis Who’s Who for her accomplishments and prominence in the field.
At the College of New Rochelle (CNR), Terry was in the first graduating class from the master’s in public administration (M.P.A.) program in human services. “I needed the M.P.A. program to help figure out my path, to help me figure out my next step toward becoming a visionary leader,” she said. “It was the most intensive professional education and the first time I learned collaboratively. I didn't feel like a student. I felt like I was developing my professional identity alongside my classmates and the faculty members.”
She spoke highly of a course called “Governance in the Motherland,” which involved traveling to South Africa to study social justice and policy changes in the post-Apartheid era. “The College of New Rochelle’s curriculum really thought outside of North American public administration,” she said. “That trip was a jolt to my identity and cultural understanding. I was a Black, American woman in a culture that is still male dominant. Talk about ‘learning your place’ and learning how to interact with people to get the information you need.”
Another important influence on Terry’s career was her mentor Sandra Boston, a woman of color who was her boss when Terry took on her first director-level role. At the time, their nonprofit agency was opening group homes for developmentally disabled people all over Chicago. Boston sent Terry to represent the agency at public meetings with the goal of assuaging concerns about how the group homes would affect property values. Terry was apprehensive because she had never done that type of work before, but Boston said, ‘You don't know what you can do until you try. If you can canvass in rural Iowa as a young Black woman, you can stand up in front of these South Side residents and tell them about the wonderful services we offer.’” Just as Boston expected, Terry succeeded.
And Terry still remembers the self-confidence she gained when she realized that she could do more than she thought, that she could figure it all out, that she could stumble and still keep going. Now, Terry works to give low-income children and families the support they need to achieve their own success—paying forward all the support she received along the way.