As one of 51 students from across the nation selected by Youth Service of America and the Festival of Children Foundation, University sophomore Keith Martinez of the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation will represent the state of South Dakota as a National Child Awareness Month Ambassador. He and his fellow ambassadors will raise awareness and create change around issues that affect young people. More specifically, Martinez will work to advance the youth programs of Lakota Children’s Enrichment, a nonprofit organization that empowers youth from the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation.
“We must let the youth of the reservation blossom in order to change the future, but the only way the youth will blossom is if they are given the motivation and support they need,” Martinez said. “Knowing the potential is what keeps me motivated and striving for a better future for those on the reservation. Receiving this award as youth ambassador has been a true accomplishment; I never thought I would become the representing figure of my state for such a program, at least not this early in my life. For this I am truly humbled and very excited to see what we will accomplish in this upcoming year and years to come.”
Each year, NCAM selects a network of youth ambassadors, one per state and the District of Columbia, to serve as community leaders. The program kicks off each September during National Child Awareness Month. The ambassadors receive funding, training and guidance with project planning from Youth Service of America.
According to YSM, ambassadors receive a $1,000 grant to support the development of a youth-focused service initiative, an all-expenses paid, three-day leadership training session on Capitol Hill, networking opportunities with other NCAM youth ambassadors across the country, training and mobilization resources and a platform to grow a specific service initiative.
Martinez met U.S. Senator Timothy Johnson of South Dakota during his leadership training in Washington, D.C. last September and discussed his plans for the year-long position.
Martinez said he will concentrate his ambassadorship around the problem of extreme poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Historically, the Pine Ridge Reservation has been one of the most marginalized and disadvantaged indigenous communities in the world.
Because it was part of his childhood, Martinez will focus on the reservation for his projects. He serves as chair of the Youth Advisory Board, and wants to motivate youth about education. Currently working to establish a reservation-wide spelling bee, Martinez plans to engage both students and teachers in the fight against severe literacy problems in the area. With dropout rates around 70 percent in schools on the reservation, the reading rate falls short of national averages.
Martinez has a variety of other plans for his community, some that touch the University.
These projects include establishing a reading and art contest, holding a Christmas toy drive and opening a children’s library at the Boys and Girls Club in Pine Ridge. Martinez plans to start a club on campus to support LCE and spread awareness and voluntarism for the Pine Ridge Community.
Lakota Children’s Enrichment was selected by Youth Service of America as one of the top 100 leading agencies in the world and will be allotted additional funding to create more events.
As a Presidential Scholar and a Gates Millennium Scholar at Villanova, Martinez has earned much respect in his community in South Dakota. He came to Villanova after graduating from Scarsdale High School in West Chester County, N.Y., as a prestigious STEP student.
“We are so proud of Keith for applying for and receiving the NCAM ambassador position,” said Maggie Dunn, LCE founder and president. “It is gratifying to see Youth Service America and other national organizations focusing on the positive and talented youth from Pine Ridge. When Keith spoke at LCE’s Youth Summit this summer, he encouraged teens to follow their dreams and to ignore negative forces that may surround them. We look forward to Keith’s continuing success and can’t wait to see what the future brings. He’s a rising tribal leader to watch.” At the Youth Summit One Day Camp last summer, Martinez motivated students to learn and become involved in their community.
“We are very proud of Keith and his accomplishments,” said Terry Nance, assistant vice president, Multicultural Affairs, at Villanova. “We have every confidence that Keith will bring the same intelligence, humor and humanity to his National Child Awareness Ambassadorship for South Dakota as we have seen in everything that he has done on Villanova’s campus.”