Tia Martha is a legend in these parts; there’s really no other way to put it. If you’ve ever looked at our social media, dating all the way back to 2014, you’ve surely seen her with her distinctive red hat and a huge smile. As such, she’s become the de facto face of our organization, spending more time with our students than anyone else. After five years working for the program, having seen immense progress and change in our organization and our students, Martha has decided to leave the VSP to pursue other avenues, but will continue living in Valparaiso. She is practically family to our students and their families and has left an indelible mark on all of our lives and a humongous pair of shoes to fill.
So, where to begin? I apologize ahead of time, Martha; it’d be impossible to sum up everything you’ve done over the past five years, so I’ll do my best. Martha came to us by way of New Hampshire, a recent graduate of Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She majored in Anthropology while there, and, having spent significant time in both Spain and Russia (yes she also speaks Russian), she wanted to explore a new part of the world. Funnily enough, her brother was a college friend of our founders and our internship had just been formalized, so it was a no-brainer to work for the VSP. While I cannot speak for Martha, I imagine she had no idea how much she’d fall in love with the city, its people, our students, and Chile in general.
Although she came to Chile with a thick, proper Spanish accent, Martha, a natural learner of languages, quickly dove into Chile’s specific, challenging idiosyncrasies. If you were to hear her speak Spanish through the wall or over the phone, you might assume she was Chilean, as her accent, manner of speaking, and vocabulary are finely attuned to the Chilean way. Her general appearance might give away the fact that she is from elsewhere, but people are still confused and amazed by her nonetheless. She has made it an absolute priority to immerse herself in the culture and has thus become a fixture in our communities and in the community at large as a result.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been walking down the street with Martha and ended up running into somebody she’s friends with. She seems to know just about everybody and everybody seems to know her, prompting me to believe that she may have been the mayor at some point. While Valparaiso is a relatively small city, and you know, it’s a small world after all, her engagement in the community never ceases to amaze me. This immersion has been particularly fruitful in our communities, as it has allowed her to understand not only the language, but the full context of our students’ lives and all of the elements that comprise their culture. This is not to say that the rest of us don’t have that ability, but to point out that Martha took her understanding of their nuances to the next level. To do so, frankly, is not an easy task, as these cultural differences are often subtle and can be intimidating or hard to understand at times.
The kids surely notice her innate curiosity, as they always seem to open up to her in meaningful ways, sharing both the joys and trials of their lives. When a student acts out or is showing signs of frustration or stress, Martha is always able to use her sense of humor and natural warmth to make them feel at ease and willing to share what might be troubling them. This task is much easier said than done considering that most of our students come from difficult neighborhoods and often have trouble opening up. Despite these difficulties, Martha approached the job as a constant opportunity for mentorship and growth, always looking for new ways to incorporate mentorship into our programming.
Martha always took it upon herself to learn more about cross-cultural mentorship and to find new ways to reach our students. This process involved listening to relevant podcasts, reading academic texts on the subject, or simply thinking outside the box of our daily programming. She has what seems to be an insatiable curiosity about the world and always brought that approach to her work through insightful questions, proposed workshops, and an expanded vision of what we could accomplish. This has resulted in skateboard and art workshops, organized soccer games, and other community events aimed at strengthening our relationships and expanding our notion of the program. Her creative ideas were always a refreshing and enlightening addition to our programming, as it is not always easy to evolve while remaining true to our core values.
It’s safe to say that, in her five years here, Martha wore a wide array of hats, both physically and metaphorically. She began as an intern in our first official class of interns and thus spent much of her first year helping the organization define itself. The VSP had existed for four years prior to her arrival, but had reached a point at which new ideas, neighborhoods, and people were necessary in order to progress. In this sense, she has been a huge part of the programs growth into three additional communities and all of the logistical legwork that that entailed.
To us at the VSP, Martha was not only an employee, but an essential part of our family. Although she will still be a part of our lives in Valparaiso, we miss having her in the office and out with the kids. Her energy, curiosity, and acumen have been essential to our work over the years and there’s a palpable sense that something has been missing the past few weeks. She always made me feel comfortable when I had doubts about a situation, myself, or my Spanish abilities and always provided the perfect piece of insight to alleviate my stress and I can’t thank her enough for that. She is a fount of knowledge about the program and our students and was thus an essential resource in welcoming new interns who may experience culture shock in their first few weeks. Always one to ask inquisitive questions, Martha has an innate ability to open up new perspectives, quietly pushing those around her to reconsider previously held notions or see a specific concept in a new light. If you want to engage in a deep, thought provoking conversation, Martha can surely help you out.
The legend and legacy of Martha will surely live on for as long as the VSP exists. I’d like to think that ten years from now, when our students are old and grey i.e. recent college graduates, they’ll share stories about her and the incredible impact she had on their lives. It’s impossible to know what the VSP will look like in a post-Martha-world (p.m.w.), but I know that we have some Shaquille O'Neal size shoes to fill. She injected so much knowledge, empathy, wisdom, guidance, fun, and positivity into our children's’ lives, so we will have to redouble our efforts to do the same Luckily for us, Martha is now making her signature chocolate, nut, and date energy bars on a more full time basis and restocks our supply regularly. The energy gained through her artisanal bars will allow us to put that extra effort in on a daily basis and keep us fueled throughout our surf sessions.
To honor her impact on all of our lives, we hosted a party for students and families, past and present, in a park two weeks ago. We took advantage of the beautiful weather, playing soccer, football, and cards for hours, while enjoying delicious vegetarian snacks. Everyone, parents and students alike, made sure to spend time with Martha and share stories of her impact on their lives. At one point, in the midst of a heated game of soccer, having received a beautiful pass from one of our moms, Martha rocketed a ball directly into my face as I stood in goal. After a quick moment of concern for my face, everyone burst into fits of laughter at the ridiculous strength of her shot in the midst of a very recreational game. To end the day, we gathered as a group, sharing our gratitude verbally and through two gifts, a book of written stories and photos from her five years in VSP and a soccer ball signed by most of our students. Tears were certainly shed and beautiful stories shared, as we collectively realized her impact on our lives.
Thank you for everything, Martha! We love you!