Call it a Native American Dream come true.
Keith Martinez, 18, grew up the eldest of a blended family of seven boys in a two-bedroom trailer on the Pine Ridge Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota. He never knew his biological father.
“It’s the second-largest and the poorest reservation in the country,” Martinez says. “When I entered high school, only 35 of 180 of the seniors graduated. Unemployment, drugs, violence, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism were rampant. Some days we went without water when the water truck didn’t arrive. Sometimes in winter there was no food.”
Two years ago, Martinez was selected by his teachers for a program called STEP — Student Transfer Education Program. His life changed so dramatically he might as well have traveled to another star system.
Today, Martinez will celebrate Father’s Day with his surrogate father, Brandon Steiner, a Brooklyn-bred sports memorabilia giant who helped the teen pick through 14 different full college scholarships to schools such as Notre Dame, Syracuse and Maryland.
Martinez settled on a full ride at Villanova University as part of a Presidential Scholarship that goes to only 20 kids a year.
His other expenses will be covered by a Bill Gates Foundation Scholarship awarded to just 100 of 24,000 applicants. That will subsidize Martinez’s education, travel and living expenses for eight years, up to a doctorate.
Not bad for a kid who arrived at Steiner’s upscale Scarsdale home two years ago with a shopping bag containing a single change of clothes and one pair of shoes.
“That changed quickly,” says Steiner, whose accent still sounds like the corner of Kings Highway and Ocean Parkway, where he was raised.
Steiner says 20 Scarsdale families supported the STEP program that offered Martinez a chance at a better education.
“We have two kids of our own,” says Steiner. “Our son was away at college. Our teenage daughter lives at home. But my wife (Mara) insisted we play host and take in a kid to give him a shot in life.
“And what we learned is how much it’s enriched our own lives.”
“When I first walked into the Steiners’ house, I’d never seen anything like it,” says Keith. “So big. I had my own room. . . . ”
Keith marveled at the bounty at the family table, and the prices in the local restaurants.
“At Scarsdale High, we learned Keith was three grades behind,” says Steiner.
Martinez joined the football team as the Steiners hired tutors.
“I learned from Derek Jeter’s book that his parents took away sports if he goofed off in academics,” says Steiner. “I did the same thing. And with Mara taking control of his academics, Keith knuckled down.”
Steiner also took Martinez into the city to teach him about life.
“I took him to Harlem, to Spumoni Gardens and Nathan’s in Coney Island, and my old Brooklyn neighborhood,” Steiner says. “I told him that street smarts were as important as book smarts in separating the hustlers out of your life. I took him to Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, the Garden to meet sports stars. Told him to shake hands firmly. Look people in the eye and talk with confidence. I played hoops with him, elbows and all.”
Other Scarsdale families had Martinez over to dinner, drove him to his after-school job at a body shop a few towns away. One dentist sponsor fixed Martinez’ teeth. Another sponsor taught him tennis. “It really does take a village,” Steiner says.
“When I took my first SAT practice test, I did horribly,” Martinez says. “When I took my final SAT, my score had risen 740 points. When I graduated Scarsdale High, my GPA was 3.72.”
And the Steiners urged Martinez to apply for scholarships.
“I was shocked when I received 14 out of 15 scholarships,” he says. “My mother is ecstatic. My younger brothers have hope.”
Today, the Steiners and Martinez will go to Tao in Manhattan for a Father’s Day dinner.
“I was raised by a stepfather, but Brandon has become like another father to me,” says Martinez. “So I will tell him that I’ll always appreciate everything he’s done for me. On the reservation, we support ourselves running a concession stand, selling soda and candy. Now I’ll major in business and marketing at Villanova, and someday go back to Pine Ridge to build a great company that can provide jobs and services for my people. That’s my dream. And one thing that Brandon has taught me is that dreams can come true.”
Spoken like a proud son.