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Friday, July 08, 2016

Baltimore’s ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’

Mary Chirico Mary Chirico

Meet Mary Chirico

Mary Chirico could have served as the inspiration behind Simon and Garfunkel’s classic 1969 song “Bridge over Troubled Water” because that is how she performs as director of Hearts & Ears (H&E). Quite literally, she is a bridge for Baltimore’s sexual-minority communities, assisting people with issues related to their mental health, wellness, and recovery. By listening carefully and compassionately to members and visitors, she bridges their mental anguish and turmoil, offering them an oasis of hope – “a safe place” where they can find encouragement, empowerment, and acceptance.

Born and raised in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, Mary graduated from Marple Newtown High School in 1985. After graduating, she moved to York and then to Baltimore in 1999. Mary has resided here ever since, taking classes, and working in a variety of mental health settings – among them the Shapiro Training and Employment Program (STEP), where Mary took classes for a position similar to a case worker to develop social and independent-living skills for people with mental illness. Once a separate program, STEP is now part of Goodwill. In fact, her former instructor at Goodwill introduced her several years ago to H&E, where she worked as a peer specialist on two separate occasions. Sandwiched in between those two work experiences at H&E, Mary worked at Timothy House in Towson, a senior retirement community, where she managed the kitchen, arranging for catered meals and setting up the dining room.

Today, as director, Mary is part of the intake process. As she explained to Baltimore OUTloud, “We ask people what pronoun they want to be called. Some people use ‘they’ or ‘zee’ if they don’t want to be identified as a ‘he’ or ‘she.’” Mary noted that “A lot of us don’t have traditional families, or no family.” She also refers clients to “safe doctors” and “safe housing” as the need arises. Currently, H&E offers a variety of peer support groups in a comfortable setting with a TV lounge, a computer lab with five computers, a conference room, and free refreshments for members and visitors.

Although Mary is a few credits shy of receiving her B.A., she thinks about going back to school “all of the time.” Mary’s formal education, training and on-the-job mental health work experiences facilitate her ability to bridge age, gender, social, and mental-health challenges. At a deeper level, however, a major reason for her success and commitment to the clients of H&E lies with Mary’s revelation to Baltimore OUTloud, “I am bipolar. I can relate to people, and they can relate to me.” Leading by example, Mary is an outstanding role model, demonstrating how successful a person can become; how far he, she, they, or zee can go in life; how they can “bridge” all types of stigma and “be a part of the world.”

Mary emphasized, “It is important that we fight the mental health, racial and LGBT stigma. We are trying to do more outreach to get more people in.”

On July 1st, Mary celebrated her first anniversary as director of H&E, a place that is more than a home for her. As she proudly declared to Baltimore OUTloud, “These people have become my family here.”

Hearts and Ears is locagted at 611 Park Avenue, Suite A, and is easily accessible by the #3 and #11 buses and the Centre Street Light Rail. The drop-in center is open on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information visit Heartsandears.org or Facebook.com/HeartsAndEars or call 410-523-1694.

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