“I wanted to make the world better. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right?” Ask Martha Ryan (Ethiopia 1973-75), who says Peace Corps Ethiopia put her on her path.
Face-to-face with dire need
Martha returned home to the Bay Area after her tour as a PCV in Ethiopia. She earned a nursing degree, and took a job at San Francisco General Hospital, and worked in intensive care. But then she found herself pulled back to Africa, where she’s cared for refugees fleeing civil war in camps in Sudan and Somalia, and travelled with a team of nurses to Uganda.
But short-term trips weren’t enough. After a few weeks or months back in the U.S., Martha longed to return to Africa to live. It was where, she believed, she could most be of service — a value that was ingrained in her while at the University of San Francisc0 (USF).
“USF always taught about social justice, about service. That really made an impression on me and probably influenced me more than anything else,” Ryan says.
Then, unexpectedly, she found a community in crisis right in her own backyard.
While volunteering at a homeless shelter in San Francisco in 1988, Ryan came face-to-face with a dire, unmet need.
“There were homeless, expectant moms, women battling addiction and abuse, and they weren’t getting any prenatal care,” Martha says. “Things got worse and worse. There were homeless mothers with young kids too. It was crazy. I’d go around and tell public health officials. They’d say, ‘That’s terrible.’ But no one did anything.”
Turn your life around
Ryan had a vision — a program that would empower these women.
“Pregnancy is a wonderful window of opportunity for a mother to turn her life around. I wanted to invest in these women and their ability to change their lives,” she says.
And so Ryan took a grant-writing class and, to her surprise, won $52,000 in seed money. She used it to start the Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP) with three part-time staff and no office. They served 72 women the first year.
More than 25 years later, the nonprofit family resource center has grown beyond what Ryan ever imagined. Its 80 staff members serve 4,000 San Franciscans annually. Over 3,500 babies have been born with HPP’s support, 90 percent at healthy, normal weight.
Break the cycle of poverty
But for Ryan, who received an honorary degree from USF in 2013, those numbers only tell half of the story. HPP has grown into a comprehensive family resource agency, offering housing assistance, parenting support, financial and technology literacy, and community health worker training — all aimed at empowering expectant and new mothers to break the cycle of poverty.
At that, too, Ryan and HPP have succeeded. More than half of her staff are former clients, shaping the programs in which they once participated. Former clients have also gone on to become homeowners and earn college degrees.
“Once people have opportunities and believe in themselves, they’re incredibly resilient. Nothing stops them,” Ryan says.
A special message from Martha Ryan, Founder & Executive Director
January 27, 2022
With gratitude for your support of the Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP), I am writing with some news that I wanted you to hear from me. After serving as the Executive Director of HPP for the past 32 years, I am beginning to plan my retirement. This summer, I plan on stepping aside from my day-to-day leadership role to assume a new role as Founder which will focus on a new special project.
I am excited for the opportunity that this change brings for HPP, and I am confident that a new Executive Director will bring a fresh vision to carry the agency into its next 30 years. I am also proud to make this change knowing how set the agency is for ongoing success: the Executive Team, management and staff are not only dedicated and compassionate, but they are smart, resourceful and truly inspiring.
HPP’s Board of Directors has known about my intentions for some time, and has been hard at work prepping and planning the transition process. They will be working with a search firm to hire the agency’s next leader. I have great gratitude for the Board’s leadership and absolute confidence in their process.
As for my special project: we bought the building next door to HPP! We did so with the hope of expanding the agency’s services and creating affordable, permanent housing for families. My new role will be focused entirely on seeing this project from permits to blueprints to family move-in. Stay tuned!
Over the years, HPP has earned a reputation in the community due much in part to its staff, its families, its volunteers and its supporters. We all have helped to shape HPP into what it is today — and what it will be tomorrow. Thank you, now as always, for being a part of our work.
Founder & Executive Director