Everyone needs encouragement, even a bit of a push — and Gabriana Martinez-Garcia found both in a mentor at Atlantic Street Center, a nonprofit helped by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. “Atlantic Street helped me grow into adulthood,” she said.
Gabriana Martinez-Garcia lost her dream job as a barista at Starbucks last summer because, she admits, she was “really unreliable.” She was also homeless, sleeping in her van, on couches, anywhere. She felt alone.
That’s when Martinez-Garcia got a call from Michelle Mitchell-Brannon, a mentor at the Atlantic Street Center who, years earlier, had helped her graduate from high school while she raised her young son in an unstable home environment. Mitchell-Brannon was checking in, which she did regularly.
“Just when I was at my lowest and didn’t have hope, she called,” said Martinez-Garcia, 20. “My life changed.”
The story of how Martinez-Garcia went from being homeless in 2016 to having a job, her own place and confidence in her future is also the story of the Atlantic Street Center, one of 12 organizations that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
ABOUT THIS SERIESEach year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for a group of charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the season, The Times is telling how the 12 organizations make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can have. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to the Fund For The Needy.
“Atlantic Street helped me grow into adulthood,” Martinez-Garcia said. “If Atlantic Street didn’t come into my life, I probably wouldn’t have finished school. Really.”
The 107-year-old Atlantic Street Center helps approximately 3,000 people a year, with services ranging from an early-learning program that promotes literacy and language development to mental-health counseling for children, families and adults.
All of the nonprofit’s funding comes from grants and donations. The center’s website says, “There are some people out there who don’t have that person to lean on and this can make life feel difficult, lonely and stressful. We are here to make sure that nobody feels like that ever again.”
Martinez-Garcia came into contact with Atlantic Street when she was 16. That’s when she had her son, Emilio, and met Mitchell-Brannon, who runs the Teens As Parents Program (TAPP).
Until that point, Martinez-Garcia said she associated with gangs, did drugs, skipped class, had no plans for the future.
“I didn’t want to do better,” she said. “I was OK with where I was.”
Mitchell-Brannon showed up to her high school three days a week to check in.
“Her norms were not norms,” Mitchell-Brannon said. “They were things she had inherited or seen in her environment.”
Still, Mitchell-Brannon saw potential.
“I could see that she had leadership abilities in her,” Mitchell-Brannon said. “If this young lady was given the tools, she was going to persevere and be successful in so many ways. But we had to deal with the brokenness and past hurt.”
Atlantic Street Center
This Rainier Valley-based organization serves more than 3,000 children and their families with programs focused on early learning, teen parents, homework help, social skills, cooking, gang prevention, mental-health counseling, ESL and more.
Martinez-Garcia started attending TAPP’s weekly meetings, where she found a strong support system and learned parenting skills. Mitchell-Brannon told her about her own past, how she had been a teen parent with no stability, and from there she and Martinez-Garcia developed trust.
“At the time I was just so unsure and confused and hurt,” Martinez-Garcia said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with this child. It was really scary. I wouldn’t be as independent as I am if it wasn’t for Atlantic Street Center. It meant everything.”
Her attendance improved, as did her grades, and in June 2016, Martinez-Garcia fulfilled a promise to her mom and graduated from South Lake High School.
“It was incredible to see this young lady transform in front of my eyes,” Mitchell-Brannon said. “I could see it all along through her exterior, but she needed to see it for herself.”
Pride and plans
Your dollars at work
Samples of what Atlantic Street Center can do with your donation:
$25: Pays for one-week supply of baby formula.
$50: Provides a month of bus fare for a teen parent to go to school or work.
$100: Provides weekly, hot meals for teens and their babies participating in support groups.
After calling Martinez-Garcia in summer 2016, Mitchell-Brannon had her come in for an office visit. She pulled out a piece of paper and told Martinez-Garcia to write down “the most pressing barriers we can remove for you that will help you out.”
The first thing Martinez-Garcia wrote down was housing; she had nowhere to live. The second barrier was child care; she couldn’t afford it. The last was employment; she needed a job.
Mitchell-Brannon helped her find child care and start the long process of applying for subsidized housing. And she called her boss: Could she hire Martinez-Garcia to work part time at the Atlantic Street Center?
Mitchell-Brannon saw someone worth investing in, and now Martinez-Garcia wants to do for someone else what Mitchell-Brannon did for her.
“Talking is only so much,” Martinez-Garcia said. “I want to be about it. I want to be an example and make a difference. I want to help people feel comfortable with themselves to want more.”
Martinez-Garcia facilitates discussions with teen parents, who are experiencing the same things she’s gone through, and she uses her experiences to mentor others.
“I have a lot of young people that I work with, and they are incredible in their own way,” Mitchell-Brannon said, “but this girl kept sticking out to me.”
Martinez-Garcia’s proudest moment was when she spoke at a fundraising event with hors d’oeuvres at the top of a Bellevue hotel.
“I had never been to anything like that,” she said, and she was nervous.
She told her story — about her son, her struggles in school and at home, how the Atlantic Street Center changed her life and could do the same for others. As always when she talks about how far she has come, she cried.
“Right there, those little moments are when I think, ‘I can’t believe I’m here doing all of this and changing,’ ” she said.
She got the keys to her own place in July, the first time her 4-year-old son had his own room. After years of moving, changing schools, living in shelters, the quiet of her own place represents the thing she’s never had: stability.
“There’s still a lot of drama and struggles I’m still going through,” she said. “But I did what I said I was going to do, so now I have to do the next part and that’s get my degree. I just want to be stable. Stable, stable, stable.”
She’s going to enroll in a local college soon, even though she is a mix of excitement and nerves. She doesn’t want to fail.
She won’t work at the Atlantic Street Center forever, she said, “but I’m always going to remember this place and have love for it.”