Mary Jane Gross, ’73: Changing Lives
December 16, 2011 by Lisa McMahon, MA'09
Mary Jane Gross, ’73, discovered early in her nursing studies that what patients often needed most was someone to talk with. This insight has guided her career and motivated her to become an entrepreneur and advocate for people with mental illness.
For the past 40 years, Mary Jane has dedicated her life to bringing high quality mental health treatment and cost-efficient services to children, families, and communities who cannot afford them. Her extensive health and mental health nursing and administrative experience spans all levels of healthcare delivery. She is a member of numerous state and national organizations and has served on many of their boards. She was also one of the first supporters of the California Mental Health Services Act, which provides funding for transformational change in the mental health system.
But perhaps her greatest accomplishment is the founding of Stars Behavioral Health Group, one of the largest mental health organizations in California with 15 locations and more than 1,000 staff serving over 25,000 clients each year. These clients are poor, homeless, uninsured and underinsured adults, youths, and families who would have no other way to access the mental health services Stars provides.
Mary Jane’s introduction to the mental health field came in her sophomore year at Niagara, when Sister Bernadette Armiger, then dean of the College of Nursing, encouraged her to apply for a National Institute of Mental Health grant.
“It was a time when they desperately needed mental health nurses,” Mary Jane notes. As a recipient of the grant, Mary Jane was required to attend graduate school, so she enrolled in the community mental health nursing program at UCLA after graduating from Niagara. There, she learned about programs and services designed to enable the poor to receive treatment in their communities rather than in hospitals and institutions, and was inspired to focus her career on providing quality behavioral healthcare in the most comfortable and compassionate settings possible.
As founder and former president and CEO of Stars Behavioral Health Group, Mary Jane has designed, implemented and operated a wide variety of innovative mental health prevention, early intervention and treatment services that adhere to stringent quality standards and evidencebased practices to ensure successful outcomes for clients. The organization, which is viewed as “a place where lives are changed,” has enabled thousands of clients to achieve and maintain recovery, develop meaningful lives and live as independently as possible. This work is closely aligned with the principles Mary Jane learned while at Niagara.
“The Vincentian values of working with the poor and needy and ministering to the sick are values I have kept and practiced my whole life,” she says. “I credit Niagara with infusing these values into my education, and the nursing faculty for demonstrating how this is implemented in nursing practice on a daily basis. These values have been with me and I have used them to guide my life and career.”
Mary Jane’s tireless commitment and visionary leadership has earned her numerous awards and recognitions. Two of the most recent include the 2011 National Council of Behavioral Health Care Award of Excellence for Visionary Leadership, and the 2011 Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame Award in Health. Both are in recognition of the significant contributions she has made to the field of behavioral healthcare and to the citizens of the counties Stars Behavioral Health Group serves.
Now retired, Mary Jane continues her work as a senior advisor to the organization she founded. And although she now is involved more with the administration of the company than with providing direct care to its clients, she says that she never “lose(s) touch” with nursing. “Every day, I use the nursing process that I learned at Niagara to think through problems and determine solutions to help people in difficult situations,” she says. “It’s a way of thinking and acting. This, together with the lens of Vincentian values, determines the actions of how I live my life and what nursing is about.”