Childhood dreams didn’t exist in Lesra Martin’s world, a place where day to day survival was a grim reality. Born in 1963, he was the second eldest son out of Earl and Alma Martin’s eight children. Although the family was poor, his parents managed to instill in him a sense of responsibility and hard work.
But his father’s ill health, his parents’ drinking problems, and a series of family misfortunes eventually pushed the Martins from a comfortable, middle class life in Queens on to welfare, and the dangerous, nightmare streets of Bushwick.
By age 10, Lesra’s family depended on his job bagging groceries to buy food. At 11, the malnourished kid with the toothy, ragged grin was working in a bar, sweeping floors and saving his tips to buy extra rice and beans for his siblings. Life was a relentless day-to-day struggle, a balance between hope and despair.Gang life literally consumed Lesra’s oldest brother, and by his teens, Lesra faced much the same bleak future.
In July, 1979, Lesra, accompanied by his father to show him the way, hopped on to a subway train and journeyed to a new summer job at a Brooklyn environmental lab. Lesra was befriended by a group of Canadian entrepreneurs who were visiting the lab. Attracted to his “….spark and light and curiosity…” they saw a bright kid bursting with potential who had few real opportunities in life. Their unexpected friendship sparked an incredible saga that would take Lesra out of the inner city and into a new life in Canada where he would face one of the most painful challenges of his life.
In spite of their many hardships and burdens, the Martin family was held together by a deep and enduring bond. Lesra will never forget the look of pain on his parents’ faces when they were faced with an agonizing choice: to keep him in Bushwick with his family, where gangs, prison, or drugs would eventually rob him of a future; or to allow him to accompany a group of strangers to a foreign land with the promise of helping him further his education. Lesra was torn between the generous offer and the responsibility he felt towards his family. Yet he wanted to leave, and ultimately, his parents found the courage to let him go.
Lesra arrived in Toronto in the fall of 1979, hopeful about his new life. It didn’t take long for his tutor to discover that Lesra was functionally illiterate. Thus, began Lesra’s incredible, pain-filled journey to learn to read and write. Bolstered by the Canadians’ compassion and dedicated commitment, he spent the next several years fighting the devastating psychological and emotional scars that stemmed from his life of poverty in the ghetto.For years, he was tormented by inner voices that told him he was “too dumb and stupid” to learn. He was afraid of books, afraid of words.
Along the way, Lesra found the courage to face his fears, inspired in part by “The Sixteenth Round”, Rubin Carter’s searing account of his wrongful imprisonment for the 1966 murders of three New Jersey residents. Taking heart from Carter’s spirit in the face of extreme adversity, Lesra wrote the boxer, setting into motion a friendship between himself, Carter, and the Canadians that led to a five year fight that helped win Carter’s release from prison in November, 1985. By then, Carter had spent nearly 20 years in jail. That unique, fateful friendship between Carter, Lesra, and the Canadians resulted in the 1992 book “Lazarus and The Hurricane.” In turn, the book inspired the recent Universal movie “The Hurricane.”
Rubin Carter’s book provided the breakthrough Lesra needed in his struggle for literacy; the Canadians provided the dedication and commitment Lesra needed to prove himself capable of overcoming his fears. Lesra graduated as an Ontario Scholar in 1983, then later completed an Honours BA in anthropology at the University of Toronto in 1988. He studied for his Master’s in Sociology at Dalhousie University. Later, in 1997, he earned his law degree from Dalhousie Law School. After he articled with a Vancouver law firm, he served as a Crown Prosecutor (similar to a district attorney) in Kamloops, British Columbia.
In 1995, while attending Dalhousie, he met fellow law student Cheryl Tynes, a Halifax native. Love grew out of a deeply committed friendship, and they married in 1998. Cheryl was called to the bar in September, 1999.
“I began a journey at 15,” Lesra says, remembering his life in the ghetto, “a journey to find a consistent pace, a belief I’d live in a safe community, with food on the table, and the eventual hope that I’d find someone to love. In the end, it became so much more.”
Once, on a 1996 trip to New York to visit his family with Cheryl, Lesra sat and studied the people on his subway car. Suddenly he felt an overwhelming sense of fear; what if he hadn’t made the subway car on that day back in July, 1979? What if he hadn’t met the Canadians? He knew the answer: he’d likely be in prison or strung out on drugs, or dead.
His parents had many problems; their lives were infused with constant struggle and hardships. Yet Lesra realized that his parents, by allowing him to leave the only home and family he knew, gave him a precious gift that brought hope and optimism.
“I’ll never forget who I am and where I came from,” he says. “I am who I am because of my life in the ghetto. I never take anything for granted. Every day is a gift.”
Lesra has changed directions in his own life since the release of the movie “The Hurricane.”He has embarked on a career as a motivational speaker, appearing before the United Nations,speaking at “Literacy 2000″ hosted by Correctional Services Canada, and was the keynote speaker for The Council for Exceptional Children symposium in New Mexico. He has appeared before many community and corporate groups, and literacy foundations. In April, 2000, he was honoured with an award from the Council for Exceptional Children.