Want to teach kids to be responsible? “Make it happen in the gym.”
It’s sage advice from Dr. Tom “Doc” Martinek Sr. – teacher, counselor, mentor, and coach – who recently retired after 47 years in UNCG’s Department of Kinesiology.
As a parting gift, he and his wife, Kathleen, established the Youth Development and Community Engagement Endowment in Health and Human Sciences. The fund will enhance the work of the department’s Project Effort program, an after-school sports and leadership program for underserved children and youth, which Martinek founded nearly three decades ago in partnership with Guilford County Schools.
Martinek is an internationally respected scholar whose early research in psycho-social development was widely recognized as a valuable contribution to exercise and sports science literature. His shift to research about service learning in 1993 made a significant impact on programs specifically designed to develop life skills through physical activity.
For the past 30 years, his work through Project Effort has been modeled throughout the world. Its initial purpose was to give elementary school kids plagued with low grades, office referrals, and school suspensions a chance to participate in a values-based after-school program that would help them channel negative energy in a positive way.
As these children moved to middle and high school, Martinek added the Youth Leader Corps program. They became young leaders of their own sports club, teaching life skills to other children in the Triad, many of whom were immigrants.
Since they began operation, Project Effort and the Youth Leader Corps have provided life-changing experiences to more than 900 children and youth. Martinek’s graduate students participated in rigorous, qualitative research, examining the results of his programs and the process of young people taking on responsibility through sport, leaving UNCG with the skills to start similar programs in other communities. One such student, Claire Newman, finished her doctoral degree in May 2023. Her role was as a mentor to the Youth Leader Corps. “I communicated with the high schoolers, helped coordinate rides and resources, and then monitored their stations and provided feedback,” says Newman.
Her biggest takeaway was that utilizing high schoolers as program leaders breaks down barriers that she, as an adult, could not (language, culture, age, relatability). “It’s really cool to see leaders experience their own path to growth and see kids start to connect with each level of respect, effort, goal-setting, and helping others.”
Newman gives her mentor a lot of credit: “Doc is a top-tier human. I have learned so much from him. You could not find a more selfless, wonderful individual.”
The Martineks’ generous gift will ensure that Project Effort and the Youth Leader Corps continue to teach life lessons to children, youth, and UNCG students for
decades to come.
To support Project Effort, visit kin.uncg.edu/community-engagement/project-effort.
By Christine Garton
Photography by Martin W. Kane.