Philanthropy – volunteers and nonprofits
Earlier this year, Ian Martin, a senior at Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, was one of 40 area teens recognized by the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati as a Character Award recipient. The Award recognized young people who exemplify the core values of the YMCA – caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.
Growing up in a single parent household for the majority of his life, Ian has grown to appreciate some of the smaller things in his life. As the oldest of four children, he made up his mind at an early age that he would be somebody great. Ian strives to constantly be a positive role model to his siblings and others around him. He has volunteered at the U.S. Bank Boys and Girls Club in Avondale since he was 13 years old, tutoring and providing homework assistance to children. Ian also served as president of the One Voice Poetry Club and Keystone Club. In 2009, he was selected as the Cincinnati Youth of the Year. Through networking he has established volunteer connections with Ceasefire Cincinnati at the Urban League and is currently part of the YMCA Cincinnati Youth Council as Vice Mayor.
I spoke with Ian about some of his life choices.
What motivates you to give back and be all that you can be?
“My mom is a single parent and I have three siblings. She is a strong woman and encouraged us to do better than she did, to go 10 or 12 steps above her. She taught me to aim for the sky. My mom also taught us to value the smaller things and always be grateful. I remember people who were extremely helpful to me and my family so I feel an obligation to give back. It is rewarding to know I can help someone like I’ve been helped. It’s a cycle.”
In my younger years I also had teachers who told me that material things didn’t matter. It is what is in your heart that matters.
What do have character values mean to you?
“I believe character values are the person you are, taking the initiative in your community, school and home to make them better. Character values are your motivation to succeed in all categories. They include having responsibility to take up actions that others may not be willing to do.”
Tell me a little more about your volunteer work and your passion.
“I had to grow up real fast and was always real quiet. I actually went to the Boys and Girls Club first before I became a volunteer. A woman there asked me if I’d consider poetry. I was the only guy in their poetry club but I found a passion for it. Now I write plays and monologues too.
As a volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Cincinnati I help kids with their homework or we play games in the gym. It is helpful for them to have a youth there who can relate to them. I think I’m making a small but powerful impact and that’s more than good enough for me.”
The United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cincinnati brought to my attention an essay contest they held for children. The purpose? To encourage expression of the students’ own or observed feelings toward those who have disabilities, and the impact of those thoughts, with the goal that insight will foster togetherness.
Wow did that bring back memories. For eight years, my favorite annual project was helping to produce the Inclusion Leadership Awards Event – an event aimed at encouraging people to think outside the box, break down communication barriers, notice AND appreciate skills that had been under the radar. Our main communication goal was to inspire a world where people with and without disabilities work and play together not because they have to, but because they want to.
I was charged with developing those messages through the speaker, the script, the acceptance speeches and the videos so that guests would leave with a real sense of vision. In 2 ½ hours, attendees were to learn a lesson that would somehow change the world as they knew it. They heard stories of organizations that instinctively knew how to uncover talent, and of people whose abilities were no longer obscurities. Acceptance, we wanted them to realize, was not an abstract. Inclusion was not so much about ‘them’ but rather it was about ‘me’.
About ME. That’s a concept. Norman Kunc, our 2001 keynote speaker, had this to share. “In our society, we have already figured out that achievement and mastery lead to self-esteem. Where we have gone wrong is that we have forgotten that self-esteem can only come out of a context of belonging…we have idolized this ideal of independence and self-sufficiency. And what we have forgotten is that human beings need to belong…in the words of the music of Cheers, ‘where everyone knows our name and everyone’s glad we came.’ “
Actor Danny Woodburn, who normally makes a living provoking laughter, briefly left Hollywood in 2004 to remind our guests of a message from Mother Theresa, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible tragedy,” he said.
Danny told us his story – the story of an actor, comedian and activist whose talents were born in the hardships of a world unaccepting of a medical condition. All too well, he pointed out; he knows the sting of rejection and ridicule because he has lived it his entire life. He still gets scripts that refer to him as a ‘midget.’
But, he said, he is lucky. Through his work he has had the ability to influence attitudes. Offensive words, he’s found, are generally rooted in misunderstanding and he unabashedly corrects producers, directors and other actors. Of his character on the NBC hit Seinfeld, he said, “All it took for the success of my character was an intelligent exchange of ideas and sensitivity to the issues of little people. As a result, both Jerry (Seinfeld) and I felt included.”
Danny’s candor has bridged cultural and generational gaps, and altered misguided perceptions. (Please stay with me, I’m getting to the connection with the essay contest.) He continued to tell us about his job after college teaching drama to 20 kids between eight and ten years old.
That first day he devoted to talking about himself. Most of the questions were pretty typical. “How old are you? How tall are you? Why are you that way?,” they asked.
Then it came. The comment that would open the door behind which acceptance stood poised and waiting. An indignant girl told Danny in front of the class what her father thought of him.
“To my daddy, you are just a midget,” she said.
Danny looked at her and politely replied, “Well your daddy is wrong. Nobody is just anything and that word to me is like a hate word. And we know hate words can affect people, how they can hurt people and how it is wrong to use them.”
After that day, Danny told us, his students wanted to have their acting class – with Mr. Dan.
“I think back and I think all it took was that one day of communication, including them in who I am and nothing else needed to be said,” he went on.
Wow. That’s powerful stuff, and yet, it really is that simple.
And that is why I was so interested in the United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cincinnati’s project aimed at opening minds and dialogue, and encouraging young people to think about the impact of their words and thoughts and actions.
“Changing the attitude of one school aged child has the ability to influence an entire generation.” said Susan S. Schiller, executive director.
UCP presented Nicole Roberts, a student from St. Mary’s School, with a family pass to Kings Island for her essay entitled ‘Inspiring Swimmers with Amazing Attitudes.’ Below is an excerpt.
For the most part, I am a typical teenage girl. Nothing scares me. I’m not afraid of the dark, I laugh at horror movies and I absolutely love to ride roller coasters, the higher the better. However, when my mom suggested I volunteer to help the Special Olympics Swim Team, I was a little nervous. It wasn’t that I was scared of people with disabilities; instead I was scared of how I would act around people with disabilities. What would I say? How would I interact with them? Would I stare?
Before I became acquainted with disabled people, I felt sorry for them. I was sad for them because they have to live with hardships that limit them for the rest of their lives. I thought they were completely different than I. Wow, was I wrong! Now I see that people with disabilities are just like everyone else. They love to watch the same television shows, they go to school, they go to the movies, and even have sleepovers with their friends. They have hopes and dreams for the future, just like we all do.
My work with these amazing people has taught me so much. However, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that people with disabilities have abilities too. It’s not about what they can’t do, but should be about what they can do, what they give to society and how they inspire others. I think of my fearless swimmers when I hear these words from Thomas Jefferson, ‘Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.’ They’ve showed me that attitude is the key as to whether you will succeed or fail. My new friends definitely have the right attitude!
Just as in Danny’s classroom, all it took for the word ‘disability’ to become transparent in Nicole’s eyes was for her to get to know others who do things differently.
Who have you gotten to know lately?
I feel truly blessed to be able to say I have gotten to know Danny, not just as an actor, speaker, comedian, and humanitarian, but as a friend. Such depth of human character is a true gift.
From the words of a dying man, Kyle Nienaber learned about never giving up. From the undaunting spirit of a people crowded into one room shanties – makeshift homes without running water, sanitation or electricity – the 18 year old learned about hope and appreciation.
These are the lessons that can’t be taught in any textbook or school classroom. They are the life affirming consequences that occur when people reach out to one another with their hearts, their hands and their souls.
It’s a beautiful thing to see such education at an early age. Kids and teenagers are not just performing acts of kindness, but really understanding the bigger meaning. They’re learning about caring and respect and responsibility. They’re becoming a generation of people with compassion and deep rooted interest in making their world a better place.
Hospice of Cincinnati strikes me as a difficult place for a young person to choose to volunteer. But it’s become a sort of family tradition for the Nienaber’s, first with Kyle’s mom and sister and then Kyle filling his sister’s role after she graduated.
“It’s something that you can look back on and say you helped someone in their last moments on earth and it puts perspective on life,” he told me.
Especially when that perspective comes from someone with a finite time to experience life’s pleasures.
A huge sports fan, John was given six month to live when he moved into Hospice. It was Kyle’s job to bring him breakfast on weekends, which usually meant having to save the food and bring it back later – when John would finally wake up. The reason? Well, if the game happened to go long John would stay up until the last out was made or the last second ticked from the clock.
“He was always very happy and thankful to have had another night to enjoy his life and the sports he loved to watch,” Kyle said. “He very much enjoyed talking with someone about the games and I was lucky enough to be that someone on many mornings.”
But John shared so much more. His thoughts taught Kyle not just about sports but about living.
From his friend, Kyle wrote in an essay, “I learned that a person’s attitude about life can help extend it. John believed that staying with something until the very end was the best way to appreciate it. Sometimes things don’t end the way you expect. ‘That’s why they play the game,’ he used to say. Most important he used to tell me to never give up.”
In 2008, through Hospice Kyle traveled to South Africa where he helped its sister organization, built shanties and delivered supplies to AIDS patients. “I was one of those unappreciative Americans until I stood in that shanty town village and realized how lucky I am,” Kyle wrote about that journey.
And there, in the impoverished town in Mamelodi where hundreds of children and adults live on each acre, Kyle observed an incredible kindness and thankfulness. “The unbelievable spirit of these people makes me believe that hope is in their future and they can make progress on the very difficult issues they face as a nation.
“They taught me that compassion and caring for others knows no bounds in terms of nations, cultures and socioeconomic status.”
At home Kyle takes what he’s learned to heart, volunteering around Cincinnati. He was secretary of Beechwood High School’s Honor Society where he maintained a 4.27 GPA. And he was honored three times – with the Hospice of Cincinnati Terrific Teen Service Award, as a finalist for the Simon Lazarus Jr. Human Relations Award by American Jewish Committee, and as a YMCA Character Award recipient. He will be attending Notre Dame University this coming school year and chose it because of its focus on service.
And, as for those lessons?
“I’ve used John’s advice on many occasions since he died last year. I always try to keep a positive attitude about everything. Most recently I was inspired during a tennis match. After losing the first set, I remembered John’s words and stayed focused until the end and was able to win the match in three sets…I wish I could have told John all about it.”
Through the years I’ve known a number of colleagues and friends who have been involved with the Junior League. I’ve also known many of the organizations who their generosity has impacted. Most people probably don’t realize the Junior League developed ProKids, the Cincinnati Art Museum Docent Program, and the Children’s Theater and Choral Group.
Thank you to all of the volunteers at the Junior League of Cincinnati for all that you do to spread kindness and improve lives.
At 8:00 p.m. on September 13, 2009 in Madison, Wisconsin David had nothing to say but he had everything to say. In that instant, it was his scream that spoke what words could not express. His arms that for the last 13 hours pulled and swung and balanced his lean body mass across
land and engulfed in water spontaneously rose above his head in triumph when he crossed the banner that said ‘FINISH’. Moments later he was in the arms of his wife.
This is what a man does after pushing himself beyond his capacity against the will of some 3000 other elite athletes – all comrades in a battle of a lifetime, giving all that he has to give and finally, FINALLY, realizing a personal goal that for the last 25 years of his life was just a dream.
“Pure elation,” David said to me. “To this day, I can still feel it.”
It was actually a twist of faith that made this conclusion even more special. You see, a year ago supporting him through all that goes into training for one of these things was his 40th birthday present from his wife (and his family including 4 children). They became team Martorano, changing their pantry to all ‘healthy’ foods, getting dad to bed by 8 p.m. even on weekends, and giving dad that boost when the 4 a.m. buzzer goes off and he didn’t feel like working out.
David looked to them for inspiration. They were his rock. On the really, really tough days,
there was one thought that always moved him to action. His normally energetic voice softened. “I would think of Nathan and Michael and how hard they have it,” he told me. “They don’t get to take a day off and so I couldn’t either.”
Nathan, 14, and Michael, 3, are David and Viki’s oldest and youngest sons. They both have autism.
The dream that almost wasn’t fulfilled.
It was a Saturday morning – one week before his 40th birthday – and David was ramping up his training. The big race was just six weeks away. He and a buddy had already finished their swim in the Houston Woods Lake. They were in hour two on their carbon-framed bicycles, manufactured to be light enough to hold with one hand yet strong enough to withstand the stress of human pressure on road disparities and imperfections.
But the bikes were not meant to withstand one thing. Without warning, a pick-up truck traveling 60 mph pummeled into them from behind and all that stood between the cyclists and the pavement was their helmets. David stares into blank space when he talks about it, wondering out loud why they were chosen to be spared when another mother in another moment lost her son.
The recovery was long, but not too long. After all this is David we’re talking about. Working at the YMCA, he had everything he needed to begin the journey all over again. In the meanwhile he happened to read about a program called Train4Autism that gives people tools to raise money for local work surrounding the disorder. David had a new inspiration.
Another thing you may not know about David is that as the district vice president for the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati overseeing the Clippard Family branch, he, his wife, and staff have started an effort to offer support for families like the Martoranos.
Once a month families of children who have autism are invited to David’s YMCA for free nights where siblings and parents can participate in recreational activities or simply visit with one another. On average more than 200 families attend. Under David’s leadership this year, the Clippard Family YMCA also was approved by the Ohio Department of Education as a private provider for the Autism Scholarship Program – making it one of the area’s few preschools providing students with all of the therapy and other services that are written into their Independent Education Plan (IEP). As part of its expanded all day inclusive preschool, his YMCA branch also operates an Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Learning Center for kids who have autism.
“I know firsthand the challenges faced by families like ours. Most insurance companies don’t cover costs of early intervention and some children require intensive therapy that many families can’t afford,” David said. (pictured at right with his son, Michael)
You can probably guess for whom David set out to raise money. This was the beginning of the letter I received: Please join me in my journey to participate in the Ironman Triathlon on Sunday, September 13, 2009 – Swimming 2.4 miles – Biking 112 miles – Running 26.2 miles while raising awareness about autism and the autism inclusion programs at the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati.
And so, team Martorano was back in training. This time David was leaner and in the best shape of his life. He wasn’t about to waste this second opportunity, and I’m not just talking about the Ironman.
The time had finally come.
It was 6:00 a.m. when David and Viki left their house for Wisconsin, way too early to get the kids up. Their good-byes were said the night before. But as the car was pulling out, the front door opened. It was Nathan. He had some final words he needed to say. “Dad, you have to persevere,” Nathan told his father. It’s pretty hard to describe how words like those affect a man like Dave but I bet you can guess.
On September 13 at 7:00 a.m. David was ready. There he was amidst a sea of competitors. When the gun went off they swam like a huge school of sardines, powering through every stroke two loops around Lake Monona. Then, with only their bare feet, they ran up a three story ramp for a quick change before hopping onto their awaiting bike. David described those first 20 miles as a warm up to the next 40 miles of rugged hills and wind desperately trying to push them backwards. By mile 56 he was still very much in control.
Then the final 19 miles awaited, and ‘it was all into the wind’. “At this point you just want to get off it and get running – after all you’ve been on the bike for over 5 hours,” David said.
In any other race, David would have been ready to call it a day, but this was an Ironman. He still had an entire marathon to do. By mile nine, he said, ‘the doubt, the internal talking really picked up, the demons, can I do this?”
It was about mile 12 when his right calf and hamstring cramped, causing him to nearly tumble to the concrete street. Only the most prepared athlete, someone with team Martorano behind them, would have thought to carry a pair of compression socks for just this situation. A quick stop with help from a race volunteer and David was back on his way…still with half the distance left to go.
They say in Ironman that the marathon is 20 miles of hope and six miles of reality. That reality struck David right in the face. The finish now in his mind, David looked up and saw it. There, along the side of the course where supporters could post messages of inspiration, David read, ‘dad, you have to persevere.’
Nothing, and I mean nothing, was going to get in David’s way now. The crowds grew electric in that final mile. “David Martorano – you’re an Ironman,” were the sounds echoing around him. Then he did it, he crossed that finish line.
Yes David, you are an Ironman. And Nathan is extremely proud.