Why I give to Puente: Marisa Martinez

At the Christmas Posada last month, Puente handed out 27 cozy new sleeping bags to farm workers, courtesy of Ms. Martinez’s kindergarten class at San Francisco’s Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy.

The students raised more than $1,000 for Puente in four hours, selling baked goods and lemonade to passersby on a Saturday in November at the corner of 18th and Castro Streets. As a service-learning project, it was a big success. Everyone pitched in, from the students, who blew bubbles and poured lemonade, to their parents, who furnished the homemade treats and supervised the bake sale. But the larger point was not lost on Marisa Martinez’s students.

“It’s not just about the classroom. It’s about how we help other people. That’s the best thing I can ever do as teacher – to spread that message: there are always people in more trouble than you are,” says Martinez, who lives in Kings Mountain and is raising two young children of her own.

Youth from Harvey Milk Academy

Youth from Harvey Milk Academy

Martinez’s students are not affluent. Many are adopted or in foster care, low-income, or born outside the U.S. So learning about the farm workers who need donated bedding to stay warm was a powerful lesson for them.

Martinez herself has spent a lot of time with migrant populations. Back in New Mexico, her home state, she would go down to Ciudad Juárez and join volunteers who set up emergency sun shelters for people risking their lives to cross the border, men and women starving for food and water. (Nowadays, the border is too dangerous for that kind of support work).

Since she moved to the South Coast, Martinez has spent a lot of time talking to local fieldworkers about their own circumstances – the drafty, crowded places where they sleep; the family members they left behind, whom they support with their earnings; the ultra-thin margins by which they survive.

Martinez has always valued human rights, having grown up with two mothers. Prior to Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, she taught at El Dorado Elementary School in Hunter’s Point, working with classrooms full of traumatized, homeless, fatherless students living in San Francisco’s most violent neighborhood.

Martinez plays fiddle and guitar, and her teaching experiences informed her popular children’s CD, Chicken & ABC’s. The album won a silver medal in the Parents’ Choice Awards.

Puente’s seasonal request for warm blankets and sleeping bags inspired her to make a difference for South Coast farm workers, and make it a teachable moment as well. Thanks to 17 kindergartners at Harvey Milk Academy, 27 local men will be sleeping well this winter.

“It’s going to be even bigger next year,” says Martinez. “Thanks to Puente for being such an amazing nonprofit.”

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