(photo by Brandon Wise)

Twenty years ago, Keith Martin had dreams of becoming a professional soccer player, of jogging into a stadium full of cheering fans, all chanting his name. Today, Martin prefers the calls of a different nature.

Instead of the whoops and hurrahs of soccer diehards, Martin would rather listen to the laughs and applause from the children he used to teach and continues to help.

A 41-year-old Santa Monica resident, Martin became an elementary school theater teacher after graduating college. But after teacher lay-offs in the Los Angeles Unified School District left him with no job and no prospects, Martin decided to create dikshen, a socially conscious apparel company that turns its profits into book donations for underprivileged children.

“I thought, ‘how can I impact these kids through story? Because I can’t teach story to them anymore,’” Martin said. “I came up with, ‘OK, let’s give books away.’”

Since January, Martin has continued his passion for education by printing graphic tees with handpicked vocabulary words and their definitions. The company aims to “empower underserved kids through literacy,” said Martin.

Being a teacher, let alone a small business owner, however, wasn’t always in his game plan.

At 18, Martin had grown up in Palmdale, Calif. in the same house he had lived in his entire life. By the time he graduated from high school, he had already been recruited to play soccer at Cal State Northridge, which during his college career became ranked as one of the top teams in the nation.

“I definitely was focused on soccer in college. So I was going to go to Europe and I was going to play there.” Martin said. “Then I had a series of injuries …. Once I finished school, I wasn’t in a position to play professionally.”

After graduating with a degree in speech and communication, Martin had no clue what he wanted to do. In the meantime, he coached soccer and waited tables. When he passed his CBEST exam, a mandatory certification for substitute teachers, he began teaching.

“That was a little taste. I realized that I loved working with kids …. I’m really good at it, and the kids really respond to me,” said Martin.

Martin went on to get his teaching credentials a few years later through LAUSD, where he was hired to teach at elementary schools in San Fernando Valley. But after a few years, he went back to substitute teaching, until he heard about a position that combined his love of story with his enthusiasm for teaching.

At the recommendation of his supervisor, he became an itinerant theater teacher in inner-city Los Angeles. Along with a visual arts and dance teacher, Martin went to eight elementary schools on a 12-week rotation.

“The kids had such a thirst to express themselves,” said Martin, who credited his students as having a larger impact on him than he did on them.

In June of 2009, Martin, who had been assured by his supervisor that his position was “safe,” came home one afternoon to find a pink slip with his name on it.

“After getting laid off I thought, what can I do that’s kind of in my own powers … what can I do so that I can impact specifically these underserved children, who are phenomenal kids that don’t have a lot of privileges,” Martin said. “Admittedly, I didn’t know much about business. It was more the excitement and the passion to do something on my own terms.”

Martin began selling his shirts online in January. It wasn’t until he met Darrylyn Kaun, owner of Zero Minus Plus at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April that he got his first break.

“My room is booked through the end of 2011; however, after speaking with him, I was really interested in giving him the other window to showcase his story,” said Kaun, who offers her window spaces to showcases inspiring clothing lines. “I think what’s appealing about Keith’s story is that … he took a personal difficult situation and turned it into something positive.”

Today, Martin has sold about 1,000 shirts and has donated more than 100 books. His goal is to donate 100,000 books by 2011.

“The idea at this stage is to just get good stories in kids’ hands. To get them excited about reading … where they will be able to escape and be transported to a world beyond their neighborhoods and inspire their possibilities,” Martin said.

Martin will be holding a launch party for dikshen at Zero Minus Plus at Fred Segal in Santa Monica on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Proceeds and book sales will go to the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Monica.


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