Heather Martell, shown here with items for a perinatal grief program along with items for the annual Festival of Trees volunteer effort. She prefers working in the background to keep all the focus on those being helped. The Business News photo by Jerry Rhoden

Tragedy may have initiated some of Heather Martell’s volunteer engagement, but the results are comfort and even joy.

After the death of her son, Martell, treasury management officer with Peoples State Bank in Wausau, co-founded The SAM Foundation (her son’s initials) in 1996. She co-founded the nonprofit group as a way to gather and distribute memorial items needed by the perinatal grief program through Aspirus Wausau Hospital, items such as those she had received when her newborn baby passed away.

“We were the recipients of the benefits of the local perinatal grief program, which I had no idea even existed in the community because to that point, we had been fortunate not to be a recipient— and received memory books and keepsakes and personal home visits from our nurse,” Martell said. “It was the caring, detailed elements of the program that buoyed our family in that time of grief. We treasure those items and are still friends with our nurse. It’s become a tight friendship.”

The best way they thought to give back was by gathering and distributing memorial items such as preemie baby outfits, memory books, photo albums and an assortment of other items. “We gave to other families in their time of grief,” said Martell, who also collected funds to buy supplies.

Even now, 25 years later, Martell said she occasionally pulls out and touches her son Spencer’s things. “I know what they still mean to me,” she said. “I look at his blankets and feel good we were able to provide some comfort to another mother or mother and father.”

When yet another tragedy struck — a nephew died in a bicycle accident — they extended the reach of The SAM Foundation to address a need for both reflective stickers on the outside of bicycle helmets and identification information on the inside of the helmet. Their nephew was medevaced and underwent surgery before being identified, and the bicycle stickers with identifying information may have helped his parents reach him sooner, Martell said.

“We asked the question, what would have helped in that moment, and connected with a doctor out of Pennsylvania who makes the reflective stickers and identification information on the inside and added that component to The SAM Foundation,” she said. “We’re giving in memory so hopefully other parents never have to have that same experience.”

I thought, ‘I can bust my butt for other community members to look at pretty trees if that means someone at the end of their life is loved and cared for even if they can’t afford it.

— Heather Martell,

treasury management officer,

Peoples State Bank, Wausau

Martell’s work with that led to her volunteerism with the Festival of Trees that benefits the Aspirus Health Foundation. The festival’s goal is to create a holiday tradition while simultaneously raising funds to support Aspirus Comfort Care and Hospice Services. She knew hospice existed, but when a friend asked her to join the committee and help raise funds to help host community veterans without means to pay for hospice care, her answer was a resounding yes.

“I thought, ‘I can bust my butt for other community members to look at pretty trees if that means someone at the end of their life is loved and cared for even if they can’t afford it,” she said. “It felt like the least I could do.”

She points to the power of the butterfly tree, in particular, on which any guest can write a name on a butterfly and place it on the tree. “By the time the event is done, that tree is covered,” she said.

Having a heart for fallen law enforcement officers led Martell to serve as a founding board member for EMPD Blue Hearts (Everest Metropolitan Police Department) which supports local law enforcement, their families, the communities they live in and the loved ones of fallen officers nationwide. It all started with a friend asking her to lend a hand at a local level and grew.

“They have pledged and are determined to put whatever kind of boots on the ground to support officers and the loved ones of fallen officers in communities, and not just the Everest community,” she said.

In 2019, they hosted their first Run With A Cop for middle school students and police that begins with practice and culminates with a run at the end of the school year.

“It’s invigorating to see all these kids establishing a great, close-knit relationship — and not a cloak of fear — with their local police authority,” Martell said.

With these causes, and others, Martell often finds she’s the one asked to pick up a microphone, emcee, do media outreach and talk at the front of a bus.

“Fortunately, the word ‘shy’ has never been used to describe me,” she said. “That goes back to my childhood with moving every three years (in a military family) and learning I either stuck out my hand and said hello or was alone for three years.”

Martell is also great in a crisis or when there’s an immediate need. When a local conference speaker couldn’t attend an Athens High School LAUNCH Youth Leadership Conference for high schoolers, Martell stepped in with a couple weeks’ notice and had no idea what to speak about.

She focused on sharing messages of self-confidence, empowerment and self-worth and was so well-received, she ended up writing a book, “Show It Until You Know It.”

The A-Team class focused on leadership development and students learned and trained the underclassmen coming up behind them, Martell said. “They asked, will you teach us and then we’ll teach our peers,” she said. “It’s been four years, and some of the kids that first year who didn’t have aspirations yet are now sophomores at UWMadison and going on to be teachers. It’s building the community for the future; that’s how I see it.”

Martell views efforts such as these as part of the legacy she’s creating, one she hopes is rooted in empowerment. “I hope I’ve empowered them to stand alone and believe in themselves as much as I believe in them,” she said.

She’s the first to acknowledge that life can be heavy sometimes, and so she counteracts that by practicing Laughing Soul yoga.

“I teach laughing yoga with leadership development as it gets people out of their heads,” she said. “Studies show that forced laughter has the same benefits as true laughter. I use the light to counteract the heavy. While there are gray days, I know that’s OK because they will pass and there will be light.”