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Martha Velez remembers the afternoon of September 13, 2018, as though it were yesterday. One minute she was on her way home from work, and the next she was hurriedly putting on leggings and sneakers to race out the door and set up an emergency shelter for Lawrence residents displaced by the Columbia Gas explosions. 

The fact that she’d never had to set up a shelter before was nearly irrelevant. 

“From then on, we just did what we needed to do,” she says.

“Hands on” leadership is more than just a buzzword for Velez, director of health and human services for the city of Lawrence. Everything about her work is grassroots and team-based, from where she spends most of her time at work—downstairs, in the thick of things at The Center (AKA the Lawrence Multipurpose Senior Center)—to unloading Greater Boston Food Bank trucks, packing up food, and making deliveries to COVID patients around the city during the height of the pandemic.

“I can’t just stand by,” she says. “The best way to do this is to be boots on the ground.”

Her boots have been on the ground a lot over the past three and a half years. Setting up the emergency shelter at the Parthum School and working with the Red Cross and donors in the early days after the explosion was just the beginning of a tumultuous time for the city. In the weeks, months, and even years that followed, she and her team worked diligently to get people into new housing and help them with the complexities of receiving relief funds.

“It went on for years for us, really,” she says. “People don’t understand that repercussions [that follow an emergency].”

She’d barely had a few months of breathing room before the pandemic plunged her and her team into yet another crisis, and this time there were even more unknowns. 

“Not only has it been traumatic, I think it’s also been very emotionally draining,” she says. “It’s been fearful for a lot of people.”

Once again, though, Velez just did what she needed to do to get to work and take care of her community. Much of that care came through food: 3.7 million pounds of it, in fact, that they distributed from The Center between April 2020 and September 2021. 

It’s no wonder, then, that Velez received the Massachusetts Public Health Association’s Community Leadership Award last year. For her, though, it’s all part of her bottomless well of devotion to her community. 

“You just do what you’ve got to do because you’re trying to assist the community that you love,” she says.