Impact Story

Sylvia Martinez is guided by desire to give back to girls

If not for Girls Inc., Sylvia Martinez might never have seen snow first-hand, flown in an airplane or hiked in Southeast Asia. And it’s likely she wouldn’t have had the chance to become the new Vice President of Programs for Girls Inc. of Memphis.

“To this day, my mom credits Girls Inc. with giving me wings,” Sylvia says. “Girls Inc. gave me my first ride on a plane, my first ID and my first snow. I’m so grateful for those opportunities.”

That gratitude and Sylvia’s life experiences make her an ideal addition to the Girls Inc. of Memphis leadership team. She left a position as Program Director for Girls Inc. of Greater Los Angeles to join our team. But her Girls Inc. story goes back much further.

Sylvia was born in California and lived in Mexico from ages 2 to 9. After her family moved back to the Santa Barbara area, she was bullied for not speaking English. With strength, determination and the help of a fourth-grade teacher she moved past all that and was eligible for honors classes by sixth grade.

She discovered Girls Inc. by accident – she was told the Girls Inc. center in Carpinteria would let her use the gym to practice basketball. And that’s when she got her first taste of the Girls Inc. Experience.

“I found myself at Girls Inc. of Carpinteria,” Sylvia said. “It allowed me to see myself through someone else’s eyes.”

Gaining a different perspective was particularly important, Sylvia says, because she grew up in a very traditional household. From her immigrant parents she learned hard work, resourcefulness and resilience. But their awareness of possibilities was limited.

“Basically, it’s ‘If you don’t leave the house married, you just stay there,” she said. “Girls Inc. helped me explain things to my parents. To say, ‘I want to be in this program.’ Pretty soon, Girls Inc. had my mom’s seal of approval.”

At Girls Inc., she worked with mentors from Island Magazine to write and edit a magazine for girls by girls. She learned about college admissions and scholarships. In short, she learned to spread her wings.

“Through Girls Inc., I was also able to travel to Washington D.C. ‘If I can go on this trip,’ I thought, ‘I can go to college, move out, and make it on my own.’ That first airplane trip was my first step towards independence. It opened my eyes to a world of possibilities. Where else can I go? What else can I do?”

Quite a lot, it turns out. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Spanish from University of California,Santa Barbara. She taught language arts and reading to kids with autism spectrum disorder and did one-on-one and group tutoring in Spanish, math and science. She also managed special projects for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles and helped create and run that agency’s successful Women in Entertainment mentoring program.

Along the way, she earned a Master’s in Psychology from the University of Phoenix, took time off to spend time with her family and spent several months hiking in Southeast Asia. The thread tying it all together was Sylvia’s connection with Girls Inc. – and it’s ultimately what brought her here to Memphis.

“At one point I thought I was going to be a lawyer because they make lots of money,” Sylvia said. “But Girls Inc. allowed me to see other possibilities. I work with youth because I am so passionate – because I had someone in my corner – and I want to be that person for other girls. I want every girl to have those opportunities for themselves. All it takes is having someone in your corner.”