The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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June 22, 2014

Citizen of the Year

Martin leads students to new career paths

MERCER — Watching students do something they don’t think they can, using skills they didn’t think they had has been the cornerstone of Rachel Martin’s life.

She’s moved to tears when she thinks back on the lives changed just by teaching teens to learn to think a little differently when it comes to work and play.

Long before she was named Mercer County’s Citizen of the Year, Martin, the executive director of the Mercer County Career Center, found her niche in teaching, even though her parents insisted she become a beautician.

“I had no idea when I was in high school what I wanted to do. And I think most kids are that way. But my mother, who was a beautician and owned a beauty shop, told me that’s what I was going to do. I certainly wasn’t going to sit around all day and do nothing, she told me,” Martin said.

And while she excelled at cosmetology during her schooling at Mason-Felix in New Kensington, her heart wasn’t on fire for it, she said. “It’s a very lucrative business. After all, hair keeps growing and people always need trimmed, permed or colored,” she said.

But just as she was getting into the business, instructors at Lenape, a newly opened vocational-technical school in her hometown of Ford City, Pa., started asking her to judge hairstyling competitions. Soon after, they asked her to fill in as a substitute teacher.

“I fell in love with teaching. I started teaching during the day and working at night. Before long, I enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh for my teaching degree,” the 66-year-old Mercer woman said.

“I mean here is a chance to be creative and teach students that hair cutting is really all about geometry and angles and that coloring hair is about a chemical reaction. There’s a lot of science involved, but they don’t look at it like that. They’ll tell you they can’t do math, but they are. And they’re good at it,” she said.

She said she’s enjoyed spending the last 27 years showing students career paths they may never have considered. “Take for example, someone who loves cars. Loves fixing them up. OK, how can we apply that love and turn it into a marketable skill? If they can weld metal to fix cars, what else can they weld? Where else can they apply that interest and make money at it?”

“I tell them you can carry a briefcase and make $10 an hour or carry a torch and make $50 an hour,” she said.

The focus is on practical application; textbook instruction rarely applies, she said. Years ago, she assigned students to build a satellite dish that they could download and record educational programming on. “And they did, by scrounging around with what we had here, because I told them we weren’t buying a thing. We’re still using it,”  she said.

Last year, students built a rocket. “They built it, measuring and remeasuring, figuring out the trajectories. It’s about teaching them common problem-solving skills and critical thinking. But oh, to see their faces when the rocket launches or the satellite works or they put that key in the ignition and the engine turns over. It’s irreplaceable,” she said.

Honored last week by the Mercer Area Chamber of Commerce and also by the Mercer County Board of Commissioners, Martin downplays her role as a community leader. “It’s not me. It’s the great people I’ve been surrounded with. I’ve always hoped I’ve been of some community service,” she said.

She used to be active in the Mercer Rotary Club and has been a longtime member of the Workforce Investment Board, where she serves as the chairman of the youth committee. She’s also involved in Oh-Penn,  an interstate cooperation aiming to bring economic development to both states.

“I feel fortunate to be where I am. Too many times we take our best and brightest and we send them away. We tell them go elsewhere to school, elsewhere to work and live. But the truth is this is a wonderful place to raise a family,” she said.

“But to have people stay here we have to have sustainable jobs,” she said.

And while Martin, along with others, believes Mercer County is on the cusp of an oil and gas boom, she recognizes the need to provide some across-the-board training useful in the Marcellus and Utica shale industry.

“We don’t offer a course per se for that. Instead, we teach skills that can work in a variety of jobs related to the gas industry,” she added.

Ten of the county’s 12 schools participate in the vocational programs offered and Martin is happy to be involved. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We take a look at what those schools are doing right, and we tweak it and implement it,” she said.

One of her most vivid and moving memories, she said, was watching a young man learn to read while reading to a toddler. Tears roll down her face when she recalls watching this young man struggle, barely able to read at age 18 and without much hope of ever graduating. “Now, he’s got this kid with him and he’s sounding out the words and putting sentences together in front of this little person who isn’t the least bit judgmental or making fun of him. And to see how proud he was as he got better was just amazing,” she said.

Martin, who said she was “totally shocked” to be named the 2014 Citizen of the Year, said she believes her teaching career has made a difference for many youth, but she still has a lot to offer.

“I haven’t given any thought to retirement honestly. I’m more excited about the upcoming soap box derby we’re working on,” she said.

Martin, who lives with her husband, Terry, said she loves to garden and loves flowers. In her down time, she likes go fishing, but admits she’s more about relaxing in the boat while her husband fishes. “I read. But I read educational books. I think the last book I read for pleasure was something I started two years ago. I’m on page 150,” she said.

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