Had it not been for Canadian strangers who provided access to opportunity, Lesra Martin would have been strung out on drugs, dead or in jail.
While on a business trip to New York 35 years ago, entrepreneurs Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton stumbled upon Martin while they were at the Greenpoint Environmental Protection Agency laboratory to research a gas-saving pollution device.
One of eight children, Martin had a summer job at the lab as part of a government-sponsored program for inner city kids whose families were on welfare and who were trapped in the tough gangs and drug-infested Bushwick neighbourhood with little hope of a productive future.
Touched by the youth’s good nature and curiosity, the Canadians brought the then functionally illiterate 15-year-old to their Toronto home to acquire an education and social skills. Shortly after his arrival in the city, Martin and his new friends were at the Toronto Public Library’s Palmerston branch rummaging through used books on sale when one particular paperback caught the teenager’s attention.
It was The Sixteenth Round; From Number One Contender to #45472 which detailed the gripping story of boxer-turned-death row prisoner Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s early life, pugilistic career, arrest for triple murder and life behind bars in solitary confinement.
Martin was so moved by the book for which the Canadians paid 25 cents that he wrote to Carter who replied and a friendship emerged that led the Canadians to work assiduously to free Carter. Their private and thorough investigation led to his exoneration of all charges in 1988.
From being illiterate over three decades ago, Martin – who like Carter now resides in Canada – is a lawyer and motivational speaker who has appeared at the United Nations and on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Three years ago, ABC Life Literacy Canada recruited Martin as its first-ever LEARN ambassador to travel across the country and share his inspirational story. Established in 1994, LEARN is Canada’s first national literacy campaign.
“Prior to meeting the Canadians, I had no hope,” said Martin at a literacy forum in east Scarborough last week. “My father had lost his factory job, food was a luxury, we often didn’t have heat or electricity in our apartment and we didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”
When he was 12, Martin survived a near death fall from a five storey-building while playing a game of tag. He spent three weeks in intensive care.
“The hospital staff didn’t quit on me even though I thought life was not worth living anymore,” said Martin who resides in British Columbia. “They were the first of a group of strangers that would come into my life and offer me assistance and a little bit of hope. That help made me realize that, in fact, life was worth living. These strangers that came into my life provided me with a safe place to live, a shelter, love and nourishment.
“Most importantly, they provided me with access to a good and decent education and they did it simply because they could…I am a lawyer because people came into my life and gave me access to opportunity simply because they could. When I was offered a hand, I developed hope which enabled me to believe that anything is possible in this world.”
In his first few months in Canada, Martin learned he couldn’t read or write even though he graduated from his Grade 10 Brooklyn class of 40 students with the third highest mark.
Thrown a lifeline by the Canadians, he completed high school in 1983 as an Ontario Scholar and received an honours degree from the University of Toronto five years later and a law degree from Dalhousie in 1997.
The Journey of Lesra Martin, produced by the National Film Board of Canada, premiered 12 years ago and Martin has authored a motivational book, The Power of a Promise, to help others overcome challenges.
Some of Martin’s siblings were not fortunate to escape the ghetto. The eldest brother died in prison while another was fatally gunned down on a New York street.
Martin addressed close to 150 young people and their families, some of whom are participants in The Reading Partnership which is dedicated to enhancing the reading abilities of children in the Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park (KGO) community by equipping parents with the skills to teach their kids to read.
“I started this program two years ago because I saw a need in this community,” said Camesha Cox who is The Reading Partnership’s managing director. “In the past five years, approximately 49 per cent of KGO students in Grade Three have walked away from the Education Quality & Accountability Office (EQAO) standardized provincial literacy test being assessed as reading below the Grade level. The statistics tell us that students who do not learn to read by Grade One can potentially struggle with it in their adulthood. So the need to do something is now.”
Member of Provincial Parliament Mitzie Hunter, who also represents Scarborough-Guildwood constituents, turned up at the event to show her support.
“I fell in love with reading one summer when our television broke,” she said. “I had nothing to do, so I went to my dad’s bookshelf looking for something interesting. I came upon a book – Great Expectations – and when I opened it, I just couldn’t put it down. It just completely opened my world and imagination. I fell in love with reading and have not looked back.”
A mini-documentary capturing the stories of KGO residents struggling with low literacy was shown at the forum and Frontier College donated 1000 books to be distributed to area families and community organizations.