UNCG Campus Weekly

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Dr. Tom Martinek, O. Max Gardner nominee, uses sports to aid underserved kids

Photo of Dr. MartinekAlthough he had already made important strides researching learned helplessness and the effect of the perception of teachers on children in physical education, Dr. Tom Martinek Sr. wanted to do more.

So, he made a change.

In the early 1990s, he started seeking work that would more directly impact the children he studied. He began to transition to more hands-on research and service, directly engaging with schools and communities to use sports to aid at-risk students.

This highly impactful work is being recognized with a high honor: He is UNCG’s nominee for the O. Max Gardner Award, which each year honors one faculty member in the UNC System who “has made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race.”

Martinek, a professor of kinesiology, is known for establishing Project Effort, a value-based program that uses sports to teach decision-making and responsibility to underserved children. The program has instilled leadership and responsibility in school-aged youth with personal and academic challenges for more than 25 years. He also helped establish the Middle College at UNCG, which partly functions as an important bridge for children who may otherwise struggle in mainstream high schools, and helps prepare them to be college, career, and life ready.

Teaching personal and social responsibility has always been the centerpiece of my program,” Martinek said. “This is driven by a set of core values related to promoting human decency, a holistic approach to working with kids, a belief that kids will rise to the expectations you have for them, and an assurance that they can be positive contributors to their community.”

His work has had an international impact as well, including service trips to train leaders in  Mexican towns – and his training of workers in Bandung and Jakarta, Indonesia, to provide support for children affected by an earthquake and a tsunami.

Martinek holds numerous honors: the Presidential Citation Award from the NC Alliance for Health, Physical Education, and Dance; a Youth Development Impact Award from the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club; and a Champion Award from Communities in Schools of Greater Greensboro. The University of Puerto Rico Río Las Piedras adopted the Project Effort program, dedicating it in Martinek’s name.

Despite his international impact, Martinek is still deeply engaged with the Greensboro community. He can still be seen counseling students and working directly with the at-risk youth who have always been his focus.

“Providing positive experiences for kids who have social, economic, and academic challenges has always been energizing for me,” Martinek said. “It has also allowed me to connect my research to practice, and it has made me a better teacher and person. There are so many other faculty who are doing important community-based work. I am so grateful and honored that I can be a part of that family of practitioner-scholars.”

By Avery Campbell
Photograph by Mike Dickens