A Sonoma County champion for youth

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."

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