Helping others is all in a day’s work for Gabe Martinez

March 4, 2024

Sonoran Center peer mentor advocates for people with disabilities on local and national levels.

Portrait of Gabe Martinez wearing a University of Arizona logoed, red collared shirt.

Gabe Martinez is the first person visitors meet at the Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities.

Gabe Martinez’s desk is right by the front door of the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine – Tucson’s Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities.

Photo of President Joe Biden with Gabe Martinez and Gabe’s mom with the White House in the background.

Gabe Martinez and his mother waited an hour to grab a selfie with President Joe Biden when they visited Washington D.C. in October. (Courtesy of Gabe Martinez)

He’s used to welcoming visitors with a friendly smile, but even he was starstruck when he came face to face with none other than the president of the United States. 

Martinez, a project aide and peer mentor at the center, was in Washington, D.C., in October at a White House reception commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act and 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He and his mom waited an hour to see President Joe Biden, who didn’t disappoint. 

“He said he liked my tie,” said Martinez, who was, of course, rocking red and blue UArizona colors. 

Martinez even snagged a selfie with the leader of the free world.

“I shook his hand,” Martinez said. “It was great to meet him. He was nice, kind.”

The same can be said about Martinez.

“Gabe is a pleasure to work with,” said Lupita Loftus, administrative assistant with the Sonoran Center. She would know, she sits right across from Martinez at the center. “His enthusiasm is infectious in our office.”

Finding his niche

Martinez moved to Tucson with his parents and sister from El Paso, Texas, in 2007. After graduating from Ironwood Ridge High School, Martinez started with Project SEARCH, an employment program for people with disabilities in 2016. His duties ranged from passing out towels and equipment at the UArizona Campus Recreation center to sorting clothes and cashiering at the bookstore.

In 2020, his mother, who was working at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, heard about a job with the Sonoran Center. Martinez applied and he has been a fixture at the center ever since. 

“I was hired on the spot,” he says proudly. 

Jacy Farkas, associate director of the center, was a member of the hiring committee that interviewed Martinez. Years later, she still remembers how his personability and desire to guide others stood out. 

“He was really able to articulate why he'd be good for the job and what he wanted to do and how he really wants to help other young people like him to be able to go out there and work and show that they're capable,” Farkas said. 

She said Martinez is always willing to go the extra mile.

“I think what I'm most impressed with is his work ethic and desire to contribute,” Farkas said. “He's always willing to try something new and learn something new.”

Lupita Loftus talks with Gabe Martinez, who’s sitting in a chair at his desk.

Lupita Loftus, left, says Gabe Martinez frequently provides the office regular updates on UArizona sports.

The Sonoran Center works closely with university, state and local disability agencies and community groups to ensure that people with developmental and intellectual disabilities have the support they need to fully participate in their communities.

Martinez is one of three peer navigators who identify as having a disability, but many staff members either identify as having a disability or have family members who do, which means a lot of them have lived experience that can help others, Farkas said.

Martinez’s duties at the center are varied. Along with providing administrative support, he helps with many youth-related projects, including one aimed at assisting Native Americans with disabilities transition from high school to work or postsecondary education.

As a peer mentor, he teaches young people how to advocate for themselves. He also speaks to UArizona medical students as part of an elective class on caring for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

“Meeting with him is always a high point of the elective for our fourth-year medical students,” said Tamsen Bassford, MD, associate professor in Family and Community Medicine at UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson. “For some, it is their first in-depth conversation with a person with intellectual disability, and they are always impressed by his accomplishments and passion for self-advocacy.”

Helping others while spreading joy

Martinez is halfway through a two-year commitment on the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. The committee, which was established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, is made up of 21 citizens appointed by the president and 13 federal government members. The committee’s mission is to offer advice and assistance to the president and the secretary of Health and Human Service on topics that impact people with disabilities as well as the field of intellectual disabilities. 

“He's been able to really provide his personal experience, talk about what we do here at our center and bring his voice into national initiatives for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Farkas said.

Whether he’s working on behalf of the committee or at the Sonoran Center, Martinez’s message is always the same: “Respect individuals and their needs and get to know them as a person.”

When he’s not at the office, Martinez loves hanging out on campus, going to UA sporting events and is always sporting his Wildcat gear. Loftus said Martinez keeps everyone in the office up to date on all things Wildcat. He’s a dog fan, too, and has two pooches – Maxie, a Lab mix, and Minnie, who’s part Chihuahua.

“He’s funny and a great co-worker,” Loftus said. “He brings so much joy. He’s just amazing.” 

Martinez said he enjoys spreading happiness and wants to do it as long as he can in his role at the Sonoran Center.

“I want to stay here until I retire,” he said, smiling broadly.