Andy Martin knew he couldn’t change the world. But he was pretty sure he could change things for the better in his little corner.
In 1977, he began working night shifts at St. Joseph’s Home for Children in south Minneapolis, trying to make life a little better for children who had seen the world at its worst.
“I just have this little niche in the world,” said Martin, whose service to children in Minnesota and to Catholic charities in St. Paul and Minneapolis has continued for decades. “I can improve my corner. Every little thing makes a difference.”
Martin retired this summer after 45 years with Catholic Charities, a career that began as just a job. He would work at St. Joe’s until he could go to graduate school and become a therapist with patients he could help for the hour a day he was there.
But he quickly realized how many more hours there were in a day to help those in need.
“Change happens, not during the hour you encounter, but every other hour,” he said. “It’s the little things that help make change.”
Martin is said to have had many jobs with Catholic Charities over the years. He has worked nights for almost half his years with the nonprofit – 13 at the start of his career, then in cushy administrative roles and back to nights for the past seven years.
Those night shifts were the times when the kids really needed someone for them, when they lay awake and thought about hurting themselves. The kids who bottled up their anger at the system, the judge, the world during the day – only to boil it up at night.
There are rules against midnight snacks and late-night roaming, but those rules are less important than being there for a kid who just needs to talk.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Martin told them. “Let’s sit down and have a cup of hot chocolate.”
It is tempting in these situations to try to solve their problems for them. But if someone gives you the answers, you’ll never learn to solve a problem on your own.
“We used to give them advice, and oh my God, it felt good to give all that advice,” Martin said with a laugh. “That’s where I learned that giving doesn’t help as much as teaching.”
He finished his years at Hope Street, a Catholic charities shelter in Minneapolis that helps teens and young adults transition to independent living. Martin remembers staff working for hours with a youngster, trying to help him figure out how to cook an egg.
“We want young people to leave Hope Street and not come back,” he said. “But we’ll be there if they come back. It might take a few tries.”
As Martin taught, he also learned. He remembers being seated with a group of three agitated young women, all shooting at him. Confused by one of the insults, he asked for a definition. But the girls couldn’t agree on the current accepted usage of the term.
“The use of words changes every week,” said one of the youngsters. And just like that, a tense confrontation turned into a language symposium. They talked so long that other staff stepped in to make sure everyone was okay.
“The four of us had a great discussion about the words,” Martin said. “I brought up some old words that I learned from my grandfather. We were in a great place just to have a nice chat about the words and how they changed.”
Now he has resigned, with the blessing of a grateful Catholic charity. He won’t stop looking for small ways to make the world a little better. That’s why he donates blood, knowing that each donation helps many strangers.
“I can make some small differences,” Martin said. “And that makes a difference.”
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