“There was a moment in time when it hit me,” Frankie says. “I wanted to do something bigger.”

Exposed to public service at an early age, Frankie Martinez and his sisters had great role models. Their father was in government affairs; throughout Latin America, their mother led workshops on women’s health issues. The family’s knowledge of Spanish language and culture was an asset for social outreach when they moved from Puerto Rico to Raleigh. “I tutored, helped at the Boys and Girls Club, coached after-school soccer. Service was something we were taught.” It came naturally.

School was another story. Frankie limped through high school and a year of community college. It wasn’t until he took a full-time job with a roofing contractor that he finally felt successful. He was proud of his project management skills, his leadership ability and the promotions he earned.

Then came an outstanding opportunity from his father, Dr. Nolo Martinez, an adjunct professor in the Department of Social Work and interim director at UNCG’s Center for New North Carolinians (CNNC). He and colleague Dr. Tom Martinek were taking interns in Community Youth Sport Development and social work on a two-week service trip to Mexico. They wanted Frankie to join them.

From that point on, everything changed.

The visit to the Atlixco Orphanage for Boys left a lasting impression of how to change outcomes for poverty-stricken youth. Eighty street kids – 5- to 18-year-old orphans – lived and worked on a self-sustaining farm. They made goat cheese, sheared sheep, grew tomatoes. Frankie saw how grateful they were to finally have a chance. That was the moment when he discovered his calling.

Returning to the orphanage for nine more months, he witnessed something powerful: Education was gradually breaking the cycle of poverty.

Frankie served as co-leader of one of the six houses on campus. He dubbed it the “Snow White house” because there were 12 chairs around a flower-topped table. Every morning after breakfast he organized the boys into a production line to get them off to school – first brushing teeth, then fixing their hair. “They were back in school, working so hard just to read and write. To see their joy in getting to that point was thrilling.”

Frankie wanted to help other children break free from poverty and transform their lives. To reach his goal, he knew that education was the key for him as well.

With his lackluster high school and community college record, his roofing experience and his volunteer work, he built his case to the UNCG Admissions officer.

“Take a chance on me,” he said. “I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.”

UNCG set him on his course. He enrolled in the sociology program. His concentration in Global Social Problems supported his vision – to create sustainable education programs for poverty-stricken youth in Latin America.

Dr. Stephen Sills was one of the toughest teachers I’ve ever had. But it wasn’t just that he was challenging. His door was open; he was a great resource and mentor.”

That same kind of encouragement came from many professors, inspiring Frankie to pursue a master’s degree in public affairs (MPA).

Now in his final semester, Frankie looks back. “Everything I’ve done is tied to UNCG – the Americorps position at CNNC, teaching classes in the UNCG Middle College, my hands-on work with Dr. Martinek’s Project Effort, my graduate assistantships in sustainability and with the office of political science.”

Frankie’s outstanding record includes earning an invitation to the Phi Beta Kappa Society and winning the Josephine Hege Award. “That was huge. It paved the way for my internship at a humanitarian non-governmental organization in Nicaragua last summer.  That’s where I brought my UNCG education to life by writing a strategic plan for their youth program.”

His next step is a doctorate in international development at Florida State University. He is thinking big, but always remembering his street kids in Atlixco, Mexico.

“Success will be measured by what they’ll pass on to the next generation in hopes of long-lasting change,” he says. “That is why it starts with the youth.”

By Kathleen Martinek, contributor

Photography by David Wilson, University Relations