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Raise your hand if you can be counted on: Introducing resident leader Marta Alvarez

September 13, 2023

The act of raising your hand? It raises awareness of your abilities—to be counted on. To care. To advocate. To lead.

Marta Alvarez, a resident of Way Finders’ Olympia Oaks in Amherst since it opened in 2014, was excited by the opportunities she found to engage with her new community at the 13-acre site located near downtown. 

“A former (Way Finders) employee by the name of Melphy Antuna, he used to do a lot of activities at our property. And I was always, you know, raising my hand to volunteer,” said Alvarez, who has an associate degree in counseling. “And it was great, it was wonderful because I love to live here. My neighbors and I, we are only 42 apartments in here. And, to me and to a lot of people, it’s more than a complex. I believe that it’s very safe, especially for the children.”

Although Alvarez lives by herself, she never feels alone. “When my neighbors don’t see me for two or three days, they call me, they knock on my door. ‘Are you OK?’ It’s a great feeling when you can depend on your neighbors.”

In 2018, when Way Finders sought new members for its Board of Directors, Antuna nominated Alvarez.

“I was very surprised, very shocked, when he referred me to it and invited me,” said Alvarez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. “And I was accepted with open arms. I was a little nervous, being surrounded by so many people from all different fields, who have a lot of knowledge within the community. But they made me feel comfortable. I’m proud to be a small part of this organization.”

Elaborating on the pride she feels, Alvarez, who serves on the Board’s Personnel and Compensation Committee, highlights Way Finders’ compassionate understanding of everyone. No matter their background, and especially when people are down.

“I really appreciate that the organization doesn’t discriminate against anyone based on race, economy, education, anything,” said Alvarez, who worked previously for The Home Depot. “I strongly believe in our mission to improve all the surrounding communities. We help people find a base, to continue building confidence, to find more opportunities. For a better future not only for the person, but for the community in general.”

Now in her second term with the Board, Alvarez helped inspire Way Finders’ 2022 Compensation Study, which was undertaken to ensure staff are paid with equity and have opportunities for career progression. She wants to make sure that all staff members get the credit that they deserve. She is also grateful for the chance to voice her perspective on projects and proposals.

“I’m honored to be a member of the Board. Because the other members listen when I give my opinion and comments,” said Alvarez, who has three children and two grandchildren. “It’s not, ‘Well, we do these types of projects all the time and we’re not interested in how tenants feel about it.’ No, they’re concerned about our communities from a resident’s side. It’s a good space for the members to hear a resident’s side of a project or proposal.”

Alvarez’s two-bedroom corner residence, which abuts woods and hiking trails, is bright and airy. Her many plants, including a lemon tree planted from seed, are thriving. An avid chef and baker, Alvarez has recently been trying to perfect Coquito muffins, inspired by a traditional Puerto Rican drink made of coconut milk, rum, and spices. Among her neighbors, Alvarez is known more for her cookies and backyard cookouts than for her involvement with the Board. And, she admits, she prefers it that way.

“My door is always open for my neighbors, I’m just a regular tenant. I’m always trying to engage with my neighbors, to share the information I have about Way Finders or about other community resources. Because if we are happy and comfortable and help each other, we make the complex better!” said Alvarez. “For example, every year I have about 15 neighbors come here for help with their applications to the Fuel Assistance Program. I have a printer, I do all the copies, make up the packages.” 

Alvarez was recently approached by the Town of Amherst to help complete an electricity efficiency survey. She spoke to more than 50 residents regarding their concerns with electric bills and ways they can save on their bills.

When Alvarez was young, it wasn’t a future in community engagement that she dreamed of, it was to be a doctor. “But I can’t stand needles, blood, anything like that,” she laughed. Though for 19 years, she logged many, many hours at a medical facility, where she received life-saving support. 

“I was diagnosed with kidney failure when my youngest son was four,” said Alvarez. “It was very difficult for me when I started dialysis treatment, to continue working and finish raising my little one. I used to go to the clinic three days a week, five hours at a time. From five o’clock until 10 o’clock in the morning.”

A phone call in 2021 changed her life. “They called me one night from Boston to say, ‘Do you still want a kidney? We have one for you.’ I got my kidney the next day, I was so happy. It’s going really well. I never, never lost hope.”

When asked what she hopes for today, Alvarez reflects on the power of small positive moments. “I’m hoping that every word, every act, every cookie, every muffin, every ride, every hello that I say to someone is going to inspire them. To feel a little better, a little more comfortable.”

Thank you for your Board service, Marta Alvarez!