PENINSULA CHARITIES – Outward turning: Volunteer extraordinaire Marion Martelli, who devotes herself to the struggling and less fortunate, begins to look to ‘legacy’
by Robb Fulcher
Marion Martelli doesn’t take her life on the Peninsula for granted. Moved by the struggles of others, she has served less fortunate people for decades.
She has helped connect countless people with everything from homes, jobs, books and toothbrushes to education, and has helped female students struggle for equality in traditionally male-dominated fields.
At one of many high-water marks, she served as board chairman for Harbor Interfaith Services during the building of a one-stop resource center to help tens of thousands of homeless and working poor people get into homes and land jobs.
Now the 71-year-old Palos Verdes Estates resident, battling pancreatic cancer, has begun to consider a legacy donation that could build on her work for years to come.
Fields and dreams
Martelli moved to the area from the East Coast in the early 1970s with her husband Vince. They lived in Redondo Beach for six months.
“Then we found out, from work associates of my husband, that the Hill was the place to be, whether you could afford it or not,” she said with a laugh.
She was active in the community from the beginning. When her children were young, Martelli volunteered at Montemalaga Elementary School, pitching in on a project to develop kids’ self-esteem, performing in skits to raise kids’ awareness of alcohol and drug abuse, and serving as a classroom docent.
During her kids’ AYSO years Martelli served as a linesman and referee, and chief of referees for two years.
“It was a fun thing, running up and down the field on Saturday, back when I had the stamina to do that,” she said.
Her work as a volunteer allowed Martelli to also give her family a broader perspective.
“You’re exposed more to real life. Especially if you live in Palos Verdes,” she said. “We supported adopt-a-family, and every year we would buy gifts, and do a food basket, and deliver it. And my kids were so surprised. ‘Mom did you see that couch? Did you see that Charlie Brown Christmas tree?’ They couldn’t believe that people didn’t have what we have,” she said.
“If you grow up here, it can be a sheltered environment.”
Martelli lent herself to the Volunteer Center, South Bay-Harbor-Long Beach, which was founded by the Junior League in 1963, and made her way to a seat on its board of directors. A hammy streak continued to express itself as she helped write and perform skits for an annual volunteer recognition program.
“I remember one year dressing up as a raisin for a conga line with ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine,’ silly things like that,” she said.
She became a member of Women in Management, putting out its newsletter and becoming a programming vice president.
She fondly recalls the large but rewarding task of planning and executing an annual convention for more than 500 women, with a keynote speech by astronaut and physicist Sally Ride, who had become the first American woman in space.
“I got to meet and introduce Sally Ride,” Martelli said. “She was such a humble person, and she was so inspirational about reaching for our dreams.”
Working the world
Then came a period of heavy travel.
Martelli had been working in accounting and, armed with a master’s degree and certification in management accounting, went on to manage several startup companies, many of them in the food industry. She held senior management positions in electronics and entertainment businesses as well.
She spent years traveling back and forth to the Far East, developing training programs for General Motors Corp in Japan, Indonesia, Turkey, India, and Australia.
Following that period, she joined the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which was established in 1881 to promote equality in education for women and girls.
“It was thought years ago that higher education would harm women’s health,” Martelli mused.
The Palos Verdes-area branch, one of the nation’s thousand, was formed in 1957, and is credited with starting up the first local recycling center.
“It became a model for the rest of the country,” Martelli said.
She joined up in 1998, put out the branch newsletter for about a decade, served in a number of board positions, and served as branch president twice.
She and her fellow university women worked to keep girls and young women informed and inspired about their educational options.
The branch sent underprivileged middle school students to weeklong Tech Trek math and science summer camps. The branch helped introduce girls to successful female role models in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), an important AAUW effort to level the academic playing field for girls.
Continuing to embrace her inner ham, she dove into AAUW readers theater, playing early First Lady Edith Wilson, Ambassador Claire Boothe Luce and newswoman Barbara Walters, raising thousands of dollars for AAUW’s Educational Foundation.
“We do performances focusing on women in history. We get to be thespians – of course, some of us may or may not have talent,” she said lightly.
Bridge over troubled water
Through the years, Martelli also has devoted herself to Rainbow Services, which operates two shelters for families affected by domestic violence, and provides counseling, case management, parenting classes, life-skills classes, and several children’s programs.
“I joined selfishly, for the social activities. They had a bridge group forming, and I wanted to play bridge,” she demurred.
She also devoted herself to Harbor Interfaith Services, a dynamic organization helping the homeless and working poor achieve self-sufficiency. As usual, she threw herself into things, serving on the board of directors for six years, and as board president for two years.
“In 2002, a very good friend of mine said if I had nothing to do on Monday, I should work for the pantry at Harbor Interfaith,” she said.
“So I was in the pantry, where we would pack a week’s worth of food for families and give it out the next day. They would say thank you, God bless you. It blew my mind, so to speak.”
Building on success
During Martelli’s tenure as board president, Harbor Interfaith built a new Family Resource Center, with the help of a nearly $6 million grant secured by Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe.
The center serves as a point of entry for the organization’s services, including 90-day stays in an emergency family shelter once used as Army barracks. Clients must work and/or go to school, attend twice-a-week case management meetings, and save 80 percent of what they earn as a cushion to put toward permanent housing.
An “Accelerated Learning and Living” program uses a three-story, 24-unit apartment complex to house families for as long as 18 months, while they receive mandatory, weekly caseworker meetings and life skills seminars, childcare, food, textbooks, school tuition, childcare, bus tokens and referrals and placement into permanent housing.
Again, they must be working and going to school. They have internet access, and are provided with computers, printers and furniture they can take with them into permanent housing.
The center has helped tens of thousands of homeless and working poor people receive a wide range of services. Because of the focus on families, the average person helped by Harbor Interfaith is 6 years old.
“We’ve had phenomenal success,” Martelli said.
Her heart is warmed by stories such as that of a woman and her 4-year-old son who came to Harbor Interfaith after six months on the street.
The family made their way into the 18-month program. The woman completed a certification program, and got a fulltime job as a medical assistant.
“She has a viable career, and a new life,” Martelli said.
Cracking the books
Martelli joined Friends of the Library in 2010 while she was serving on the Harbor Interfaith board, again at the suggestion of a friend.
“Jane Jones, a member of an AAUW readers theater group with me, said, ‘We’re looking for someone to do the newsletter.’ Ten seconds later, I said ‘I’ll do it.’”
“We all travel in the same circles, if you will, on the AAUW and other boards,” Martelli said.
The Friends raised an eye-popping $373,000 for library programs last year, and Friends volunteers have logged an estimated total of nearly 24,000 hours a year.
“We are fortunate, we’re an affluent community, we don’t have trouble convincing people of the value of the library,” she said.
Looking to legacy
Martelli’s health has taken a sudden turn, and true to form, she’s wondering how that might affect others.
“In October I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” she said. “I had no symptoms at all, then suddenly it’s chemotherapy every two weeks. I’m bald, but I’m still active. I’m limited in some things, but I’m still active with the library.
“It’s going well. As you know, pancreatic cancer is bad. At my last scan the tumor hasn’t shrunk, but it hasn’t grown either, so, fingers crossed, and I’m getting some heavier chemo.”
“Life happens,” she said. “At first, for two or three weeks I did the morbid thing. I stayed home and cried, and felt sorry for myself, but it didn’t make me feel better, it made me feel worse. Then I started to get proactive. I went back to the library, and pursued the [Friends] presidency, and it was kind of fun to do things again.”
“I’ve been thinking about my own mortality, and my husband and I have been discussing legacy. Harbor Interfaith and Friends of the Library have legacy programs, and it’s one of the hardest things to get people to donate for,” she said.
“But if you think about donating to an endowment, that amount, even if it’s small, will grow if it stays there. Hopefully others will give, and it will continue to grow, and earnings from the principle can help sustain the agency year after year.”
Martelli ponders the future of the volunteer corps as well.
“Our volunteers are an aging group, or they are teens in school. There are not many middle-aged people that volunteer. We have a couple of younger members, but it’s hard for them to get very involved, because life is so busy for them,” she said.
“I don’t know if there is a fix for the problem. Every organization seems to have the same demographic, older people. We’re all aging together, and we all wonder about who is going to replace us.”
One thing is certain: Martelli is doing her part.