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Peace Corps gives UNF alum, Rotary Scholar new goal

It had been a long, six-hour, crowded bus ride along dirt roads through the sweltering Peruvian countryside when 23-year-old John Paul Martinez reached Los Ranchos, a remote village of a few hundred people where he would spend the next two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. After 12 weeks of intense preparation in Lima about the local culture, economy and history, he was cut off from the Internet, electricity and everyone he knew for the first prolonged period in his life.

Dressed in a button-down polo shirt, dust-covered khakis and Ray Ban sunglasses, he stretched his legs and pulled out his Blackberry to check the area’s cellular coverage. The blinking flash of “NO SERVICE” reinforced a sudden sense of longing for Jacksonville. His initial panic soon passed as he recalled what his Colombian-born mother often said: “Things happen for a reason and usually have a way of working out for the best.”

The Peace Corps had sent Martinez, a 2007 graduate of UNF’s international business and business management programs, to this coffee-growing region of Peru to help the community acquire, improve and practice good business organizational, technological and communication skills. He was determined to use his education, street smarts and resourcefulness to empower the community and himself – and have a ball doing it.

“Although I am Latino, the townspeople initially looked at me as an American foreigner -- a ‘gringo,’” Martinez said. “But, then I discovered the key when I saw some kids kicking around an old, deflated soccer ball. I could gain the parents’ trust if I were their child’s friend. Ping Pong Diplomacy worked for Nixon, so I tried that approach with soccer.”

To get acclimated to the site as well as the townspeople, Martinez jogged at a nearby mountaintop soccer field at dawn. Soon, local children began to jog too and invited him to play soccer. Eventually, locals invited him to their homes, sharing food and beer, as well as their hopes for the community and identifying its most pressing needs: small business development, youth education, organizational development and community service.

Martinez started by working with local coffee producers and artisans to help them obtain small-business licenses and do basic grassroots marketing, branding and sales and inventory tracking. He then showed them how to work together by having the artisans create woven pouches filled with locally grown coffee that could be sold to tourists. He integrated himself further by forming youth groups, teaching health and English classes, organizing a regional mission planting several organic gardens with the assistance of parents, forging business alliances and helping Los Ranchos obtain electricity.

His deep interest in other parts of the world, experiences in UNF’s international business program, religious upbringing and family heritage seemed to prepare him for the Peace Corps. Martinez was named a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and has begun graduate studies in sustainable development at the prestigious INCAE Business School in Costa Rica this September.

The first in his family to go to college, Martinez attended the Coggin College of Business on several academic and service scholarships, including ones from the Gottlieb Family, the North Florida Refrigerated Food Association, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and Raymond “Trey” Gage III. During his time at UNF, Martinez studied abroad in China, Uruguay, Argentina, Japan, Italy and Chile; regularly wore a Pillsbury Dough Boy costume to entertain children at Wolfson Children’s Hospital; served as president of the student chapters of the Society for Human Resource Management and Student Business Advisory Council; was active in Students in Free Enterprise; and mentored at-risk students in Jacksonville.

Carol Spector, an instructor in Coggin College of Business’ Department of Management, had no doubts that Martinez’s resourcefulness and networking skills would make him successful. In one instance, Martinez got local businesses to donate gifts for his entire class as part of a group project to plan a fictitious employee appreciation party. She also recalled how he volunteered to serve soup to the poor at a local monastery on a South American study-abroad project.

For his trip to Peru, District 6970 Rotary Club in downtown Jacksonville helped Martinez fulfill his dream of creating a sustainable youth soccer program in rural parts of the department of Piura Peru, in which Los Ranchos is located. Through his network of contacts within local Rotary Clubs, Martinez was able to acquire dozens of new soccer balls, nets, cones and other equipment to transport to Peru this year and distribute with the help of his former Peace Corps colleagues.

His hope is that the soccer league can have the same ability to engage and transform other rural areas and families as it helped Los Ranchos.

“Soccer is a great way to engage families in broader health and well-being issues,” he said. “On a broader scale, what it will take to run a league over several years is a business plan, effective marketing, staffing and fundraising – what I learned at UNF.”