Before her family’s house caught fire in 2016, Linda Martinez, 73, had costumes for everything. She had so many hats, friends called her “the hat lady.”
She’d dress up, pass out candy and “be silly” on many occasions — Halloween, Christmas, even some days in the hallways of Fremont Health, where she can be found to this day doing volunteer work.
After the fire, Martinez may have lost the costumes. But she’s never lost that positive, energetic outlook on life. None of the hardships that’s she’s faced —from the 2016 fire, to a battle with breast cancer, to a fight to escape alcoholism (she’s 23 years sober) — has worn her down.
“My thing is to bring joy,” she said. “You have so much to give, but if we’re down and depressed, it doesn’t help us, either.”
Today, the Fremonter is busy providing communion to homebound and hospitalized individuals. She volunteers at St. Patrick’s Church, where she’s played an integral role in establishing services for the Hispanic community. And she volunteers at countless community organizations, from Habitat to Humanity to Keep Fremont Beautiful.
Asked how she stays positive, Martinez doesn’t hesitate: it’s “by the grace of God,” she said.
“He gives us strength when we don’t have any and He gives us that courage and the hope that things are going to get better,” she said.
Martinez and her husband Al arrived in Fremont in 1978 from El Paso, Texas, at a time when there were few Hispanic people living in town. She wasted no time getting involved, and in the 40 years that followed, she’s developed an impressive resume of community service.
She joined the Eagles Club in 1979. When her son started at Head Start in 1985, she started volunteering there and eventually became a chairperson of the Parent Council.
From 1985 to 2005, she served as the president of the American Legion Post No. 20 of Fremont — her husband Al is a veteran — and she also became involved in other groups, like the American G.I. Forum Ladies and Vietnam Veterans of America. For 10 years, Al and Linda also volunteered to help set up Fremont’s Avenue of Flags, where American flags fly along Military Avenue to honor veterans.
Martinez’s son signed up for Habitat Humanity and ended up living in one of affordable houses that the organization creates. Overcome with gratitude, Martinez decided to give back. She volunteered and served on the Habitat executive board and selection committee from 1998 to 2005. She organized a Hispanic Committee to serve lunch to Habitat for Humanity House builders. She still volunteers at the Habitat for Humanity Homestore, which sells new and gently used home improvement goods.
Martinez was honored with the 2005 Human Rights Award from Church Women United of Fremont to commemorate all of her volunteer work.
“At the time when I started, we weren’t really financially (well) off,” she said. “I figured that our time is valuable. So I said, well I can give my time.”
But Martinez’s belief in the importance of giving back was, in part, borne from her own experiences with hardship — experiences that brought her closer to God and inspired her to do more.
Martinez is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober since 1995, when she started going to Alcoholics Anonymous. The program’s emphasis on spirituality inspired her to change her life.
“From there it was just like: God first,” Martinez said. “Religion is something that you do every Sunday. But when you get spiritual, you get a closer contact with God.”
After that, beginning in 1997, she became increasingly involved at St. Patrick’s Church, helping to coordinate services for Fremont’s growing Hispanic community. She helped establish the Spanish Choir, where she sang for 20 years, and recalls helping to spread the word about the church’s emerging Spanish-language Masses, then held only once per month. She became a coordinator at the church for the Hispanic community in 2006, where she served for two years.
In 2003, Martinez was tested again when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a breast removal surgery. And once again, the hardship drove her to embrace her spirituality even tighter.
“When I got through that and I went through the surgery I told Father God, I want to serve you if I come out OK,” she said. “I said, ‘this is it Lord, if you want me to come out of this OK, I have to do something for you.’”
And so she did. Not long after her recovery, Martinez became a Eucharistic minister who gives communion to the homebound, as well as to individuals at nursing homes and hospitals, a service that she still continues to provide, even now at 73.
On top of her ministry work, Martinez works at the Fremont Family YMCA, swiping cards at the Wellness Center. She’s also a poll worker during elections at the Dodge County Courthouse. And she continues volunteering at Fremont Health at the front desk. She also helps out at Nye Legacy with bingo events to stay active.
“Every day is something that I have, and so my life is very active and my life is very fulfilling, I can say,” she said.
She also volunteers with Keep Fremont Beautiful, which she’s done since 2005, and serves on the board. She received an award for her work there, which usually involves, among other things, volunteering at events like the group’s Household Hazardous Waste and paper shredding events.
Leila Hybl said Martinez has helped support her in her first year as executive director at Keep Fremont Beautiful, and that her efforts in the community are impressive. Martinez’s bilingual abilities helps the group spread its message of conservatism, and her positive attitude helps keep everyone’s spirits up.
“She is hilarious. She is fun to work with,” Hybl said. “I just know that she is very proud of the community that we live in and she does everything she can to continue making it even better than it already is.”
Martinez has no plans to pull back on any of her volunteer work, she said. Even as she remains a busy mother to five boys, a grandmother to 19 and great-grandmother to six.
And there’s nothing that can dampen her spirits.
“I always have this thing about — when I got sober and got closer to God — it’s not how we start, it’s how we end,” Martinez said. “And I’m hoping that I’ll have a good ending and that the Lord Jesus will say ‘good job my faithful servant.’”