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Amidst chaos, ‘cycle-breaker’ charts her own course to complete high school 

Grad with Grit: Gigi Martinez

Godfrey-Lee — It is customary to celebrate students when they reach the end of high school and graduation. Gigi Martinez said she received the best gift at the beginning of her senior year at East Lee Campus. 

“My gift from God for my senior year was to have the opportunity to meet all the incredible people at East Lee,” she said. “It was a school where I really felt like I could be myself.”

Earning her diploma was “a really big accomplishment,” Gigi said. She didn’t always think she was going to finish.

A Godfrey-Lee student since preschool, Gigi transferred to East Lee — the district’s project-based alternative high school — after three years at Lee High School. 

Her freshman year had been completely online during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she described as “chaotic.” 

“It was 2020 my freshman year and my mom and dad were really going through it,” Gigi said. And money was tight. 

She started working at a friend’s family restaurant at 13 years old, preparing and serving food and washing dishes. 

At 14, she worked as a cashier at AMC Theaters, which she said was her favorite job because she made a lot of new friends. And over summer breaks, she worked a second job at Walgreens as a cashier.

Gigi spent the majority of her in-person sophomore year working and playing basketball and volleyball, to “stay away from home with everything going on,” she said.

Her parents eventually divorced, and Gigi lived with her mom and two older brothers. Gigi said she sold designer shoes to earn money for her own school clothes so she didn’t have to ask for money.

“My mom would help me wherever she could, but if I wanted extra stuff I had to buy it,” she said. “Mom had three of us to take care of, and I was the youngest so I wanted to help.”

Work and School: A Balancing Act

Balancing work, school and sports became a challenge. Gigi said she lost her focus and fell behind in school. Facing the challenge of staying on track to graduate, Gigi decided to transfer to East Lee for her final year to help catch up on credits.

“I was trying to motivate myself, but I really wasn’t working,” she said. “Then I handed myself off to the staff members at East Lee, and people started helping me and giving me the motivation I needed to go finish high school.” 

Gigi said she didn’t expect to get along with her East Lee peers, but soon found connection in their common goal. 

“I just felt really connected to the school … and It was really like everybody knew everybody,” Gigi said. “Nobody really judged anybody, because we were all there for one of the same reasons: We (were) all behind.”

She described her senior year at East Lee as “filled with laughter,” and with genuine teachers.

“My teachers and my counselors helped me a lot,” she said. “Every time I felt some type of way about something, the teachers understood me. Without them, I don’t know if I would have finished.”

One of Gigi’s favorite teachers at East Lee, Kelly Ashby, said her favorite memory is laughing together and their shared competitiveness that could “clear any go-kart track.” 

“She’s a force to come across, and is destined to change anything she sets her mind to,” Ashby said. “She’s thoughtful, outspoken and secure in who she is as a person — all traits I wish I would’ve had at her age.”

Throughout Gigi’s senior year, Ashby said she watched her student grow into her role of advocating for herself and others. 

“Gigi is a cycle-breaker and there is so much joy, but also a lot of pain in that,” Ashby said. “She was adamant it was not her ‘mistakes,’ but her growth that she wanted to focus on. … Gigi inspires me.”

East Lee High School senior Gigi Martinez speaking at her high school graduation ceremony (courtesy)

Embracing a Future of Possibilities 

Gigi’s storm of challenges did not let up as she approached graduation day. That same week Gigi’s family mourned the loss of her grandpa, who died after a slow, painful illness.

“Toward the end it got really hard,” she recalled. “Keep your faith in God and you can weather any storm. He’s going to get me where I need to go. I just needed to encourage myself and believe in myself.”

At the graduation ceremony, Gigi walked alongside East Lee and Lee High School peers and served as one of the student speakers. 

Though the cost of college means it is not currently in the cards for Gigi, she said she dreams of combining her love of writing with traveling. 

“Honestly, I don’t know what comes next, but I like to talk to people and like to write. I think about being a journalist or a flight attendant, maybe both. For now, I’m focusing on work and helping my mom out. It’s the least I can do for her.”

Read more from Godfrey Lee: 
Determined leader sprints past K-12 finish line, pushed by her little ‘star’
Turning pain into motivation

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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