Highlands alumna receives award for addiction prevention

Highlands alumna Desiree Martinez

Highlands alumna Desiree Martinez, center, shows off her New Mexico Behavioral Heath Star award along with her mother Sonia and father Rey, a social work professor at the university.

LAS VEGAS –Desiree Martínez thought she was saying good-bye to her father for the last time. She walked out of the hospital room where her father Rey lay in a coma, sat on the floor in the hallway and quietly cried. It all happened so fast. Rey was driving to Farmington from Las Vegas and was involved in a front-end collision. The doctors said it was unlikely Rey would pull through. A woman – a stranger – noticed Desiree sitting alone on the floor and crouched next to her. The woman said nothing. She was just there.

“She put two and two together and just sat with me,” said Desiree, a New Mexico Highlands alumna. “She sat with me for about 20 minutes then said, ‘you’re doing great. I’m very proud of you.’”

Overwhelmed with storm clouds of sorrow, fear and uncertainty, the stranger was a beacon of comfort for Desiree. And while Desiree never knew who that woman was, her act of kindness inspired Desiree’s philosophy of the social work profession she shares with her father.

“I look at myself as a supporting actress in other people’s lives and make sure the things I do help people in a positive way,” Desiree said. “I’m a lot more intentional in my actions.”

The turn Desiree’s life took on that day, the mystery woman, the understanding that actions matter, ultimately led to Desiree receiving New Mexico’s Behavioral Health Planning Council’s Behavioral Star Award in January. Her father Rey, a professor in Highlands’ Facundo Valdez School of Social Work, was by her side during the awards ceremony.

“I was overwhelmingly proud,” Rey said. “Not just because she’s my daughter, but because she has a good heart, she’s a bright lady, and she’s been around these issues a long time.”

Desiree, a prevention coordinator for the San Miguel County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, received the Behavioral Star Award for her work on substance abuse prevention projects like Take Back events where people can dispose of prescription medications. The award recognizes each individual’s grassroots efforts in their communities to combat substance abuse. During the October 2017 Take Back event, people from the county surrendered 151 pounds of prescription drugs.

“We are consistently ranked in the top five states for substance abuse,” said Desiree, who works with Highlands’ HU CARES program, which provides resources for victims of violence, stalking and suicide prevention. “Our youth are in the top five in the country for feeling hopeless or sad within the past 30 days.”

Desiree said the seeds for the desire to help people were planted by her parents, Rey and Sonia.

“My parents taught us empathy from a very young age,” Desiree said. “My mom was always using our home school time for volunteering at the soup kitchen or singing songs at the senior center. My dad would come home and talk about his research.”

Rey said watching his daughter’s journey to a professional social worker who is dedicated to helping others has been inspiring.

“It’s a real privilege having her as a daughter,” Rey said, “and now having her as a colleague is an amazing blessing.”

An outpouring of support from the Las Vegas community and New Mexico Highlands family saw Rey through his recovery and return to the university’s Farmington center. The tragedy that unfolded on that highway in 2014 gave both Desiree and Rey a new perspective on life and their relationship.

“All the events were so overwhelming and painful,” Rey said. “When I came out of the coma, it took me a while to figure out what had happened. When I finally got my bearings and knew who I was and who my family was, Desiree would come in and read Facebook posts from people wishing me well. I could only listen to two or three of them without becoming overwhelmed with gratefulness.

“I’ve seen Desiree do great things, but I have never been on the receiving end of such kindness and compassion,” Rey said.