A 2015 study by the National Assessment for Education found that just 33% of American fourth and eighth-graders are at or above proficiency level in reading. That percentage is even more abysmal when looking solely at children from low-income families. Only 18 percent of students living in poverty are reading proficiently, per the U.S. Department of Education, while another study found that 61 percent of low-income families don’t have any children’s books at home.
The stats are a cause for major concern: Studies have shown that one in six third graders who struggle with reading will not complete high school, and high school dropouts are more likely to have drug and alcohol abuse problems, be unemployed and commit crimes at a higher rate than those who graduate.
Goldin Martinez is doing something about the low literacy levels in underserved communities. But that’s not all. He’s also tackling growing obesity rates in those same communities. It’s a 2-for-1 that’s making serious impact and changing how kids look at reading.
In 2009, Martinez, a 28-year-old fitness trainer, started Get Focused with hopes of building a reading program that would turn exercise into currency for inner-city kids who couldn’t afford to purchase books. The idea came about when Martinez was 20 years old and searching for meaning.
“I discovered my purpose is to create a movement that would change lives. I wanted to do something new and fresh, but I wanted it to involve reading,” Martinez says. “What if these kids can pay for books using exercise as currency?”
It was a revolutionary that sparked a movement. Today, Martinez travels the New York tri-state area, helping children in dozens of schools with purchasing books through exercise. So far, 22,000 books have been “sold” in New York City.
“Do you know how many kids were left out of the Scholastic book fairs? I was one of them. And now there’s no problem like that. We walk into these schools, and every single kid can participate. Every single child.”
Though passionate about impacting young people’s lives, Martinez’s journey wasn’t easy and was marred with many barriers early on, even going homeless to start his organization from scratch.
“I left everything behind just to collect books to launch this program. I was couch-surfing and brought my books everywhere. I thought about giving up. I was overwhelmed with starting something that was bigger than me.”
Martinez’s drive made Get Focused a fundraising success after just one year. The New York-native went old school with his approach and took his program straight to the city streets, yelling and grabbing the attention of pedestrians. “The whole mission was, ‘Support us so we can get this program into public schools.” It worked.
“What we did was each label had the exercise, but at the bottom of our label, it would have our GoFundMe page.”
The innovative idea caught the eyes and ears of Advocate Community Providers, a health professional organization that supported Martinez’s dream and allowed Get Focused to visit over two dozen New York City public schools.
Martinez credits his methods with the success of his program, adding that his trainers actually engage with the kids as opposed to bossing them around.
“We don’t delegate to young people, we participate,” he says. “When our trainers walk into these facilities, we’re going to participate with these kids. For a long time, young people saw fitness as a punishment. And we wanted to change that and say, ‘No, it’s not a punishment. It’s a way to empower yourself.'”
Childhood obesity can not only lead to adulthood obesity, but it’s also a path to lifelong health issues. Children who are overweight are likely to develop hypertension, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes later on in life.
“Eight years ago, I heard “get focused” and it changed my life,” Martinez says. “Those two words motivate me. Those two words empower me. They give me energy. When I hear ‘Get Focused,’ it sometimes doesn’t have a definition to me because for me it’s a feeling. That’s what I want for it to be for [kids] — a feeling.”
Martinez’s overall goal, aside from showing that socioeconomic conditions shouldn’t dictate literacy and fitness levels, is to plant seeds of hope in the brains of children. It’s something the fitness trainer says he wishes someone had done for him when he was a child growing up in the inner-city.
“We try to make them feel like we truly care about them and that there’s a purpose for them.”