The International Gazette Philadelphia, PA Spring 2013
The Vine Ministries International: Homeless not Hopeless
By David Block
Since childhood, Natalie Martinez has been passionate about helping the poor and homeless. It was so important to her that she founded the Philadelphia based non-profit 501c3 organization, The Vine Ministries International in 2009.
She is a firm believer in the Golden Rule, which states that we must treat others the way that we want others to treat us. For the first eight years of Natalie’s life, she lived in poverty in Colombia, South America. She lived in a shack with no electricity and no running water.
Her extended family compensated for these impoverished circumstances. “I was the happiest child,” Natalie remembers. “I had my cousins, friends, aunts, uncles. I was part of a loving family.” Natalie was particularly close to her mother’s younger sister, Aunt Amalfi. At the time, Natalie thought that everyone in the world lived the way that she did.
Coming to the United States
The only thing that made Natalie unhappy was that she was separated from her mother, Irma. In 1980, Irma left Colombia to work in the U.S., It took Irma five years to save enough money to bring Natalie and Amalfi to the U.S.
Natalie and Amalfi arrived in the U.S. in 1985. When Natalie first saw large multi-room houses with indoor plumbing and electricity, she thought it was surreal. She did not know a word of English. “It wasn’t so bad because I had my mom and my aunt,” she said, “but now my whole community was gone.”
Her mother was a live-in housekeeper in the affluent Main Line suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania. Natalie now lived in a spacious and commodious house, which had four bathrooms, wall to wall carpeting, and cable TV.
“It was the first time that I realized that I was an only child,” said Natalie. “Before, I was surrounded by tons of people, cousins and friends; now I was alone.”
Her very first friend was an English Sheep Dog named Pebbles, who belonged to her mother’s employer. Her first human friend was the little girl who lived across the street. “We had a language barrier, but we still had fun together,” said Natalie. “We ran around, played hide and seek, and laughed a lot. Laughter is universal.”
Remembering Her Roots
By the end of her first year in the U.S., Natalie had mastered English and now felt at home here.
Taking part in church projects to benefit the homeless reminded her of the poverty of her childhood. Natalie noticed a big difference in attitudes. When she was poor, she had been happy because she was surrounded by a loving and extended family. The people she was trying to help were miserable. There was no laughter, there was no extended family, there was no nurturing.
In high school, Natalie went on missionary trips to Mexico and Peru, where she saw families living the way that she lived in Colombia. “That could have been me,” said Natalie.
The Vine Ministries International
Natalie began leading church youth groups in 1998 to feed the homeless. To encourage more people to volunteer, she formed the Vine Ministries International in 2009. “We were doing the same work that we had been doing, except it was now through a non-profit organization,” said Natalie.
She named it the Vine Ministries after the passage in The Book of John chapter 15:5
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
Homeless Not Hopeless
On one occasion at Love Park, Natalie and fellow church members were feeding the homeless. “A man approached us on a bike to get food,” said Natalie. “Someone with me said to the man, ‘you don’t look homeless.’ He replied, ‘I may be homeless, but I’m not hopeless.’”
Natalie continued: “It taught us an important lesson: We cannot judge a book by its cover. We don’t know what people are going through. It’s not our job to determine if a person is homeless to decide whether he gets food. We’re there to provide food and clothing to people who ask for it.”
Contrary to popular belief, not all homeless people are drug addicts or suffer from mental illness. Natalie met a number of individuals who became homeless because they lost their jobs and/or were unable to afford housing. She said that some people had to choose between food and shelter.
In May 2010, Natalie and members of her church, Fuente de Vida (Fountain of Life), located at 7811 Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia, went to Guatemala to do a medical missions trip for two weeks. For the first week they held a medical clinic in Guatemala City. They partnered with a pastor from Guatemala, Pastor Gamez, who pastors a thriving church and runs a school for the community. “Our main donor and financial supporter was someone who owns a home health care agency that provided The Vine Ministries International with physicians, nurses and a dentist,” said Natalie. “We operated out of the school in Guatemala City. We screened hundreds of people daily. We provided free medical services, medication and dental work.” The dentist was the busiest of all the doctors because a lot of the patients have problems with their teeth due to the malnutrition.
Natalie remembered a girl who was particularly worried about her teeth. She was about to have her “quinceañera,” and did not want her crooked teeth to spoil her pictures. (In certain Latin American countries, when a girl turns 15, she often has a quinceañera, a special 15th birthday celebration, similar to a girl’s sweet 16 in the U.S.)
The dentist provided her with cosmetic work, and she was no longer embarrassed about her teeth. That young girl’s self-esteem was truly impacted.
After leaving Guatemala City, Natalie and her church group traveled to rural sections of the country like Coban. Some of the areas they visited had neither running water, nor electricity, nor health care access. “It was the first time that missionaries went to that section of Coban,” said Natalie.
Natalie and her church sponsor an adolescent flag football team, the Jets, that is part of a flag football ministry called Timoteo Football. Some of the players have been in trouble with the law, while others dropped out of school. Natalie said that the league fills a void for many of the players who have no access to recreational sports. The league gives them opportunities to play sports and to have fun. It also provides them with mentors. “I’m proud to be a mentor,” said Natalie.
For more information about Timoteo/Jets: www.timoteofootball.com
Natalie hopes to expand the charitable work done through The Vine Ministries International.
For more information or if you are interested in volunteering please email Natalie at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 215 917 4422.