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As a chief executive, 37-year-old Matt Martin cuts an unlikely figure — a slight guy who shows up for work in casual slacks and V-neck sweater, a fedora covering his close-cropped hair.

He's sporting the beginnings of a beard on a boyish face and speaks with a working-class New England accent. With no big educational pedigree and after just two years at the helm of Social Advocates for Youth (SAY), an agency older than he is, Martin has emerged unexpectedly as a force to be reckoned with.

He has befriended some of Sonoma County's biggest power brokers in the nonprofit world, often finding his way through the back door through mutual acquaintances. And he does it with a buoyant optimism mixed with an infectious passion for the cause of helping homeless, runaway, disadvantaged and struggling youth.

Martin thrust himself to the forefront of local nonprofit leaders last August by securing the donation of the former Warrack Hospital in east Santa Rosa as a place to fulfill his dream of creating a comprehensive center for youth services.

Bill Reinking, chairman of the board of directors at Exchange Bank, characterized the offer by Sutter Medical Center as "huge."

"I have never heard of anybody being so generous as to give something that could be immediately used and of this value. That kind of gift is unprecedented."

Martin said he does not know the value of the property, and Sutter officials did not immediately respond Friday to an inquiry. When Sutter purchased the 53-year old, 79-bed hospital in 2001, medical experts valued it at $10 milliion. Sutter then announced a $2.7 million upgrade.

Martin sees his role as helping kids break through the cycles of violence, poverty and abuse that seem to get passed down through generations.

"The human spirit is a spirit that endures, and can really endure through a lot of challenges," he said from his office on Airway Drive, an uncluttered room adorned with photos and artwork of kids who touched his life during his years as a teacher, program developer and mentor for inner-city kids.

"When I look at my work here, it's squarely grounded in helping families break those cycles and create new futures for themselves."

The Warrack campus dream

A move to the Warrack building on Summerfield Road would triple the size of SAY's physical offices, expanding and centralizing services for youth and providing space for related agencies.

Concerned that SAY's Tamayo Village homeless shelter for youth cannot accommodate the growing number of kids living on the streets, Martin and a team of advisers persuaded Sutter in November to donate the majority of the Warrack campus, agreeing to sign over 38,000 square feet of property and lease back some space still in use in the east wing.

While the nonprofit has an agreement with Sutter, it is studying whether the ambitious project can work, given the costs of renovation, maintenance and operation. Martin hopes to have a clearer financial picture for SAY's board meeting Wednesday, with a decision possible by April.

If the Warrack dream materializes, Martin said he expects SAY to be able to serve up to 25percent more youth than the more than 2,500 it now helps each year. Martin has joined other staffers in going door to door in a face-to-face lobbying effort.

Making it work hinges on drawing in other youth-serving agencies to share the space and cost. If it works, a new Youth Opportunity Center would not only provide more shelter to teens but offer counseling and other services in one location.

Helping families is a cause close to Martin's heart.

His mother, Patricia, had her first baby at 18; Martin is the youngest of five children. His dad, George, the son of a Portuguese immigrant, was forced to drop out of high school. He drove a cement truck while Patricia stayed at home, later completing her GED and getting a job as a classroom aide. Typical of the working poor, they struggled to make ends meet. When George had a heart attack, the family lost its home and moved to a second-floor tenement closer to the tough urban core of New Bedford, Mass.

"It was scary and confusing and angering," Martin said. But he learned through the experience that people can overcome their history.

"I just watched my parents struggling and my father, particularly, work to end cycles that he had to live with growing up: a lot of violence, a lot of abuse in the home," he said. "When my father had his chance to be a father, he never once brought those things into our home. He did everything he could to stop those cycles. I have to do everything I can to continue that work he started.

"My mother taught me a lot about forgiveness and caring and just general compassion, and my father showed me what it meant to work really hard and not to give up even when things seem so insurmountable. Those are two sets of skills and values I carry into the work I do today."

First step to his current life

It was a supportive high school teacher who convinced him he could shoot beyond New Bedford. Earning a bachelor's degree in psychology and education from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, Martin signed up with the community service group AmeriCorps, teaching elementary school and working on a children's museum in Providence, R.I. There he met Arcelia Moreno, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, who grew up in Hopland, similarly without financial advantages. Smitten, he went with her when she returned to California.

"I grew up thinking I would live and die where I was, because many of the people I knew did that," he said. "I never thought I'd see a place like California."

It was his first time on a plane and he remembers the exact date — Aug. 22, 1998 — hopping aboard with $800 and everything he owned in his brother's duffel bag.

The couple landed in Oakland, where Martin signed on as an elementary school teacher.

"It was tough, but the kids were fantastic and the families were wonderful," he said. "Everyone wants the same for their kids. Everyone wants their kids to be successful."

He later took a job developing after-school programs in tough neighborhoods from Oakland to Bayview-Hunter's Point in San Francisco. After a stint with the nonprofit youth organization Campfire, where among other things he ushered inner-city kids to camp to learn about nature, he became director of operations for the Boys and Girls Club in Petaluma.

He and his wife, Moreno, an herbalist, live on Petaluma's west side with their 12-year-old daughter, spending time gardening, reading and playing board games when not traveling and seeing the world.

And he loves baseball, describing himself in a characteristically diplomatic way as "a Giants supporter, but a Red Sox fan."

'I don't care about no'

His first position with SAY four years ago was development work. He had never been a fundraiser but said he's lived his life by taking risks. The possibility of being turned down doesn't stop him from asking.

"I don't worry about 'no,'" he said. "I don't care about no. I just thank them like they said yes and remember them for future conversations. When I think about the kids out there, it's the least I can do. I can take no for them."

By combining fundraising forces with other agencies, Martin grew SAY's budget by about $1 million in the past year, for a total of $4 million. The annual SAY fundraiser, called The Big Event and held at The Friedman Center, is gaining a reputation as one of the most enjoyable events on the charity fundraising scene. The first year, Martin managed the themed party (this year's May 4 bash is Let's Play Ball), they took in $45,000. Last year, they netted $185,000.

Philanthropist and businessman Bill Friedman, a SAY supporter thanks in good part to Martin, called him "a real pied piper, in the best sense of the word. And he gets people to come aboard his train because he's definitely the driver."

He recalled that after meeting with Martin through a couple of friends, he found himself drawn in by his lack of airs and an eloquent advocacy for his cause, strengths he said are making SAY one of the "top-run organizations" in Sonoma County.

"He has an unbelievable ability to share his caring with you that makes you care," he said. "You've got to have somebody that makes you believe. And even though you believe in the cause, you have to have someone leading it that brings you along."

Schulz Museum Director Karen Johnson, a veteran of the local nonprofit scene who for 15years headed up the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, said Martin "is among a new generation of executive directors, including David Goodman at the Redwood Empire Food Bank and Collette Michaud (founder of the Sonoma County Children's Museum), who are bringing new things to the community."

They bring an entrepreneurial approach to the task, she said, noting that many old-school nonprofit leaders were committed to social service but distanced themselves from hard financial challenges. This new generation of nonprofit leaders, she said, is "not afraid of money and they're not afraid to use the money to make things happen."

Open management style

When named SAY executive director in 2010, Martin assumed a management style based on collaboration, open communication and cultivating relationships, which he believes is what the kids themselves need the most.

"I don't need to have yes people around me," he stressed. "It doesn't do anything. I want people with ideas and questions and thoughts and a divergence of perspectives."

The community is taking notice. In his short tenure at SAY, Martin has been singled out as a Community Champion by Celebrate Community Partnership and named by the North Bay Business Journal to the "Forty Under 40" list of outstanding young leaders.

He is widely regarded as a likable mensch, without ego, whose style is an unaffected familiarity mixed with humor. His East Coast roots have made him direct and persistent.

"A lot of people in that business tend to be pretty dry, because it's not really any fun," said Rick Hill, a Santa Rosa builder and longtime SAY supporter. "They have big hearts, but they're rarely engaging. But the way Matt engages with the public is so personal. He really gets to know you, and he's not just doing it to climb the ladder."

While almost militantly upbeat, Martin is in a hurry to get things done.

"I'd like to be more patient with the time it takes to create change," he concedes. "Sometimes it's a hard truth to accept in the face of the urgent need that exists for many of the county's children, youth and families."

That need weighs on him. "My greatest frustration with my job is turning on the heat at night and knowing there are hundreds of youth on the streets of Sonoma County who can't do the same thing."

With the Warrack project, Martin faces his greatest test. He's realistic about its complexity.

"The last thing we want to do is open this and then have to close it in a year. That would send an entirely wrong message to the youth we're trying to help," said SAY development director Cat Cvengros.

Meanwhile, Martin has assembled a dream team of project advisers, including Friedman, commercial real estate mogul Jim Keegan, businessmen Vic Trione and Willie Tamayo, project manager Bert Bangsburg, architect Jim Henderson, Mark Davis of Wright Contracting, former Burbank Housing project manager Don Watanabe and civil engineer Leroy Carlenzoli.

"I try to operate on the value of collaboration over competition," he said, to find new ways to get things done.

He has a track record to show for his efforts. Last year, he brought together five agencies that provide youth employment services under a common program and county funding umbrella called The Youth Link to reach more kids.

"Each of us is planning to serve almost twice as many kids as when we were operating separately," said Katrina Thurman, executive director of the Community and Family Service Agency, one of the organizations within the consortium.

At Martin's initiation, SAY obtained a grant in conjunction with the city of Santa Rosa to create a program using Functional Family Therapy "around issues," he said, "that have to do with young people making choices that usually lead them to get involved in gangs."

SAY's services

SAY provides a range of services from individual and family counseling and youth employment assistance to gang diversion and a tattoo-removal clinic. SAY also provides emergency and long-term shelter for adolescents and young adults, as well as a "street outreach" of food, clothes, socks and condoms.

The six-bed James E. Coffee Teen Shelter gives a short-term home to kids 12 to 18 while helping them reunite with their families. More critical, said Martin, is the desperation of youth aged 18 to 24, many of whom have aged out of the foster-care system but lack the skills to support themselves. The unemployment rate is 21 percent.

SAY's 25-bed Tamayo Village shelter on Yulupa Avenue now has a waiting list of 22.

The Warrack project is SAY's reaction to Sonoma County's rising population of homeless youth. The last count two years ago found 701 young people without a permanent home, a leap of 168 percent over the 268 counted in 2009. SAY is awaiting the results of a new count taken in January.

John Meislahn, a vice president of Exchange Bank and current president of the SAY board of directors, said Martin is so persuasive and has done such a good job of putting SAY "on the map in Sonoma County," that there's a waiting list to serve on the board.

"He touches one person one day at a time and he does it really well," said Meislahn. "If he were a reverend, he'd have a church of 3,000. But he's a nonprofit leader and the county is better off because he's in town."

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