When I first heard about the Edgar Martinez Project, I really did not know who Edgar Martinez was, let alone what to expect from the project. All I knew was he was shot and confined to a wheelchair, but there was more to this story than that. Edgar Martinez was a teacher working in the Chicago area. After being truthful and reporting a student for dealing drugs, he was targeted by the student and shot several times. Not only was he paralyzed, confining him to a wheelchair in his own home, but he was left to function in a world not designed for those with disabilities.
After learning about his story, I felt a huge weight tugging at my heart; I began to remember every teacher that left their mark in my life. My seventh grade teacher, Barbara Garrison, who taught me to never be afraid of mistakes as long as you learn from them, and my high school teacher, Jesse Berlanga, who was patient enough with someone who didn’t even know how to use a mouse and made me realize my love for architecture. Those were the people that gave me the courage and guided me to where I am today and even though I barely knew anything about Edgar, there was one thing I was sure of, he needed help and I wanted to be there to help him. This was my motivation; it was as simple as that.
Build Day. Bring on the Labor!
Early Sunday morning on July 15th, thirteen volunteers (SAIC, UIC, and IIT), eagerly got on the bus, headed down Wabash, then onto the Dan Ryan Expressway bound for Indiana. The day was going to be a sunny and hot in the upper nineties, but we were well prepared with a cooler full of refreshments. When we arrived at Edgar’s house I was surprised to see some contractors and construction workers were busily working on fixing the side of his house. We quickly began work on his ramp, first removing lattice panels that wrap around on the bottom, then a long session of sanding every piece of wood panel, railings, benches and finished up by sweeping away the dust. After that we applied the first coat of sealant, a shade of medium gray. Then, two people went to work painting the lattices, while the rest of us tackled the ramp. At one point we realized it was becoming overcrowded, which made it difficult to paint so we decided to take turns. Throughout the day we were provided with cold water, coffee, plenty of snacks, brownies and tamales so delicious that it was impossible to simply eat just one. After a second coat and much needed lunch break, we began to reassemble all the lattice back in place and began to clean up all the supplies and debris.
At the end of the day, we were all covered in sweat, wood dust, huge blotches of paint, and some of us even in dirt. It was when we were packing up and making sure that we weren’t leaving a huge mess behind that I saw Edgar slowly approaching us. His face wore a huge smile that was clearly shown in his eyes, as if he was the happiest guy in the world and it didn’t matter that he was in a wheelchair. It was then that I felt a hurtful sympathetic pinch that I quickly regret. It was only there for a second but I knew it was wrong. He didn’t want sympathy, what was done was done, and there was no turning back time. You can only to move on, he knew that. I was angry with myself because I knew that if I was in his situation I wouldn’t be able to handle it, so how was he able to? I stood there for a long time in awe at such a teacher and almost didn’t realize he was holding his hand out to me. He shook my hands a few times and kept thanking me and everyone around me. I could see in his eyes that he really meant it as he thanked us again, again and again. It was at that moment that I told him, “Thank you for giving us this opportunity,” ……but what I really wanted to say was, “Thank you for letting us be a small part of your life, for showing us what bravery really means. Thank you for being a teacher and standing up when others wouldn’t, for being a voice to those who really need it. Thank you for your honest smile, because it was all worth it.”