It could be assumed that a young, African American, homeless boy from Watts, being raised without his father, and on-the-run from an abusive stepfather, wouldn’t have the brightest future on the horizon. Immediately all of the dismal statistics of young men in similar situations come to mind—a life of crime, life in prison, no life at all.
But 17-year-old Michael Martin, in spite of unfavorable circumstances, has beat those odds, and with the support of his mother, his mentor, and his unwavering dedication, will begin studies at Georgetown University this fall.
Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him. —Aldous Huxley
As a result of being homeless at 14 years old, Martin says his eyes were truly opened.
“I go to Verbum Dei High School in Watts where there is a large homeless community, and I used to believe that it was only a result of drug use, but after becoming homeless I understood that you never know someone’s circumstance, and that people are individuals,” said Martin.
In the beginning, Martin says he didn’t talk about his situation because it hurt him too much. But soon after, he saw a need to educate his peers on the perils of homelessness by creating Homeless Awareness Week at his school.
Adopted from a similar program at Loyola Marymount University, students were invited to become part of a demonstration where they lived like the homeless for a week. They slept outdoors in cardboard boxes, showered in the school teacher’s locker rooms, they were only able to eat leftovers from the lounge, and still had to be responsible for getting themselves to class each morning.
“I really just wanted to open others’ eyes to what it is really like, and that anyone can end up in that position,” said Martin. “The first night, it was so cold that many of the students opted out, and that is part of the point. They had the choice to go home and get in their beds and under their blankets. Some people don’t have that choice.”
As part of the week’s events, the students watched documentaries, listened to speakers and held forums for reflection on their experiences, which Martin says always ended with opened minds.
In fact, the success of Homeless Awareness Week led to Martin being awarded the Bill Coggins Community Leadership Award by the Kaiser Permanente Watts Counseling & Learning Center.
“It meant a lot for me to receive the award because it meant that what I was doing mattered and that it was being recognized. I am very thankful to the Watts Learning Center,” said Martin.
The young leader’s dedication didn’t go unnoticed when it came to his to his academic pursuits, because Martin was named valedictorian for his graduating class.
“Honestly, the best part of it was how proud it made my mom,” he said. “It warmed my heart to make her proud because I see how hard she works. She raised me, and my older brother, and it makes me smile to see her smile. She is the most supportive mother in the world.”
Another individual to make an indelible impact on Martin’s success was his friend and mentor David Price, a Verbum Dei alumnus, who he says was this cool, popular, talkative guy, who still maintained respect for his teachers, parents, and got amazing grades. Martin was inspired to be just like Price who is now a senior a Georgetown.
“I told him when I was a freshman, ‘four years from now, I’ll be at Georgetown’, and I think maybe he thought I was joking.”
Throughout his high school years Martin’s interest in different schools did arise. He was offered a full ride to Loyola Marymount University and considered going, but, after a visit to Georgetown last year, and Price’s positive influence, his interest in the school was renewed, even though he did not receive a full ride. Through additional scholarships and awards, Martin has been able to cover his education at Georgetown where he will study to become a biomedical engineer.
“My heart was always with Georgetown and the school was in line with the Jesuit ideals that I got from Verbum Dei. I value that focus on educating the whole person where it’s more than just intellectual. It’s social justice, it’s community service…. I believe to be complete you have to help others.”
Martin says to other young men in his situation, to never let your negative experiences weigh you down, and instead grow. He believes you will be more happy than you were yesterday, if you always focus on the positive possibilities of tomorrow.