The idea of being a caring, guiding father figure to a son was the last thing on the mind of Norland Martinez years ago when he was growing up in Everett, and through tough circumstances, found himself living in a motel and dealing drugs in order to get by.
He was just 14.
But the news from his girlfriend at that same time that she was pregnant changed his life forever, and through tough perseverance and the help of the Healthy Families program, the 15-year-old teenager learned to be a father to his son while living in a stable foster home.
“It was May 2008 and I decided I was going to stop dealing drugs and do something with my life,” he said. “I wanted to be a good father to my son. I was on my own in Everett at 14 and I wanted out. I think I got to that point a couple of times during the six months I was living like that, but I didn’t know how to approach it.”
Nowadays, Martinez is a 25-year-old successful father who has moved out of Everett recently, but frequently returns to visit friends and family. Working for a software company, it’s a long cry from the days he spent in a foster home from ages 15-18 caring for his son and taking classes from Healthy Families.
“They taught you a lot of the basic things like when to give them milk and the things a baby needs,” he said. “My son was a later speaker too and he was also very shy around people. We worked a lot on getting him to talk…I was just 15 when I started that program, but I considered it a challenge. It was doing what I had to do and so I did it.”
They also taught him how important it was to have a structure in the house, and he implemented that in his foster home when his son came for visits. It’s a lesson he maintains to this day with his son, Jayden – who is 10 now.
“The older my son got the more the dad role is impactful and important,” he said. “The role of being a father is one I cherish. I absolutely love it.”
However, it wasn’t a role he saw strongly in his own life.
Growing up in Everett and Revere, Martinez said his mother was rough and it was a tough childhood. By 12, he had moved from Everett, but kept running away to come back to the city. After doing that so many times, that’s when he found himself trying to support himself in a motel by selling drugs.
He said it wasn’t something he was cut out for, but he was scared to come forward and tell authorities he was on the run.
He said in those days he loved to ride his bike around Everett, and he often took long bike rides from the city to other places. One night, he said he decided to ride all the way from Everett to Lawrence.
Halfway there, in Reading, he stopped for a rest.
Someone had noticed him and called the police.
Once on the scene, officers were suspicious that he was the same Norland Martinez who had run away from state custody. However, they didn’t push the issue and were ready to let him go.
Yet it was at that point that Martinez said he made the decision to come clean, get his life together, and try to be a father to his son that was on the way.
“That night was a game-changer,” he said. “That’s when I felt I could get out right there. It felt good, but when I think about it, it is crazy. To think 11 years ago I was dealing drugs in Everett as a teen-ager. Today, I’m working for a medical software company.”
Martinez said he’s not sure what would have happened to Jay had he not made the changes to his life, and had there not been a program like Healthy Families. What he does know is that instead of grief or sadness this past Sunday on Father’s Day, it was a celebration for he and his family.
“I was so blessed nothing bad happened to me,” he said. “There was an angel watching me all the time. I now have a great job and a great family, and my son Jay and I are so close.”
A recent study by Tufts University that was just published by the American Journal of Public Health found that the Healthy Families program reduced second reports of child abuse among participants by 32 percent, reduced homelessness and dependence on cash assistance, increased parent’s employment, decreased parent’s emergency room use, reduced maternal depression, and increased children’s executive functioning. There is federal money that helps support the program so it only costs the state $500 per family.