FROM HARDSHIP TO HARVARD

In the acceptance speech for her Washington, D.C. Beat the Odds award, Rhondee Benjamin-Johnson described the murder of her aunt when she was a child and its effect on her family, which grew overnight from five to 10 children.

Her parents separated under the strain, and Rhondee, then 10 years old, assumed a lot of responsibility for her siblings’ and cousins’ care. She prepared meals, monitored the children’s homework, and supervised chores and baths. Her mother, a teacher, was working “superhard” and needed Rhondee’s help.

“The main impact was that we didn’t have enough money. We were thrown into poverty, and we felt the stigma of being poor.” School was her refuge. “I could focus on school and take my mind off what was happening at home. When the teachers saw I was doing well, their tendency was to teach me more, give me praise, and that helped.” One year, a teacher gave her a winter coat in a kind way that didn’t make her feel bad. She excelled in high school as a National Merit Commended Scholar and senior class president. She received the Beat the Odds award in 1992.

Rhondee graduated from Spelman College and Harvard Medical School. She also got a master’s degree in anthropology and development from the London School of Economics (LSE). At Harvard and LSE she discovered that physicians had long been agents of social change: “Physicians a long time ago recognized that social circumstances affect your health and lifespan.”

Rhondee practiced medicine in underserved communities in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles and worked as a consultant to the Lewin Group where clients included the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In 2006, she was featured on a panel on young women’s perspective on health, education and leadership at the Global Women’s Action Network for Children Conference in Jordan, under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah.

This July, Rhondee began a new job at Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Health, as medical director at the largest of its six sites in Washington, D.C. Begun 25 years ago by nurse Maria Gomez to care for immigrant pregnant women, Mary’s Center embodies the idea of addressing health and social needs. Each site provides not only medical care but social services, including day care for children whose parents agree to learn English and computer literacy so they can better navigate their world. Several sites have charter schools.

Rhondee said she’s excited to work at a place with a broader view of medicine. She remains close to CDF and has been on the Beat the Odds selection committee in Washington for many years. “All along I’ve had people who helped me and cared about me. I feel that’s what CDF celebrates—kids can’t always make it by themselves and need help and encouragement beyond their families.”