Without Leonard Martin, it was a moment of humanity that might never have happened.
Near the end of his 11th annual youth forum on Jan. 13, a boy stepped forward and told organizers of the bullying he experienced at home. They took down his personal information and have remained in touch, promising him a safe ear and ally.
Some years, turnout for the panel discussion is sparse. But Martin, 44, doesn’t measure success by the number of seats filled, but through connections like the one made with that little boy.
“One year, one of my former teachers saw I was in despair because of the numbers and she called me to the side and said, ‘Stop it.’ If God wanted them to be here, they’ll be here,” Martin said. “Who He wants to be here, they’re the ones that are supposed to be here and you’re going to touch their lives, and every year, that always comes back to my mind.”
Martin credits two women with setting the stage for his love of public service: His namesake and grandmother, Leona, and Greenwood County Council member Edith Childs, who Martin calls a mentor and teacher.
Martin said that January moment, when his event was able to connect a child in need with people able to support him, is at the core of his mission.
“It does make it more meaningful,” he said. “Things like that give me the internal optimism to say, ‘Keep doing it, you’re reaching somebody.’”
Four years ago, Martin, who works at GreenWood Inc., launched “Engaging Men of Color,” a nonprofit that links community leaders with youth to talk about positive decision making and civic engagement.
“I try to find good people who can really talk and facilitate the program,” Martin said.
Tripp Padgett, a Greenwood attorney who has spoken at several of Martin’s events, said his empathy is accompanied by a strong work ethic.
“He pays attention. He’s got follow up, and that’s what makes a difference,” Padgett said. “He tries so hard to build a bridge not just for a certain community, he’s just a kind person who wants to make things better.”
While local officials including Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams, state Sen. Floyd Nicholson and state Rep. Anne Parks have long supported and participated in Martin’s endeavors, his contributions have also gained notice on a larger stage.
He’s gotten letters of thanks over the years from U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-6th District, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and former President Barack Obama, who reached out to Martin through the White House communications office.
“It was amazing. I had started sending him letters through the White House communications but that year, when I got that envelope, it was just so amazing. That just gave me passion to keep doing, just keep doing,” he said. “It really was just an honor to be recognized by him.”
In 2008, former Piedmont Technical College President Lex Walters wrote a letter of recommendation for Martin, who at the time was applying for a position at Erskine College.
“I have known Mr. Martin for several years, and have been impressed with his professional manner and interest in serving others. Mr. Martin impresses me as a fine young man who is seeking an opportunity to make a difference and to contribute to serving others,” Walters wrote.
In 2009, former Gov. Mark Sanford presented Martin with a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the state “for your contributions to the Greenwood community and your commitment to making a difference in the lives of others.”
Born in McCormick, Martin and his family moved to Greenwood when he was 10. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business management from Limestone College and a Master of Business Administration from Walden University, an accredited online school based in Minneapolis.
Although his career has led him through several companies including Tyco Healthcare, Cutler Hammer and the U.S. Census Bureau, Martin hopes to parlay his volunteerism into a full-time job.
“I really want to work in education or something where I can help people reach their goals,” Martin said. “Forums like mine, we really want to talk about making wise decisions.”
Martin is also very active in Bethlehem Church of God Holiness in Greenwood.
Although laurels and proclamations have followed Martin, he said they’re a byproduct of his desire to make the world a better place.
“I don’t look for recognition. When I go to bed at night something internally tells me, ‘you helped someone today. You helped feed them, you did something,’” Martin said.