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Oklahoma executive builds career helping farm workers retrain for better-paying jobs

Jorge Martinez, a west Texas native who grew up as a migrant agricultural worker, now heads an Oklahoma nonprofit that annually helps some 300 state farm workers retrain and find more stable, higher-wage jobs.
by Paula Burkes Published: April 29, 2012

Success stories on ORO Development Corp.'s website tell of how the Oklahoma City-based nonprofit organization has changed the lives of Oklahoma farm workers who retrained and found higher-paying and more stable jobs in truck driving, cosmetology, welding, horse shoeing and other industries.

Executive Director Jorge Martinez insists the 41-year job training organization — formerly known as Oklahoma Rural Opportunities — is not anti-agriculture. “But we are here,” he said, “for those who need to improve their lives.”

Martinez knows their plight all too well. As a boy, he worked alongside his mother, tending and picking cotton and other crops. Later, he scrapped for whatever jobs he could find until training with ORO where he's built a career.

Former manager of ORO's Altus office, Martinez took ORO's helm two and a half years ago. Among other duties, he writes proposals for some of the $1.3 million the organization is awarded annually by the federal labor department, and oversees a staff of nine: five in its offices at 909 S Meridian Ave. and case managers in Altus, Clinton, Muskogee and Miami field offices.

ORO annually helps 250 to 350 workers retrain and find work, even offering temporary assistance with housing and utility costs to some.

Applicants must be U.S. citizens or authorized to work in the U.S. and show that agricultural work accounts for at least 50 percent of their incomes for 12 consecutive months of the past 24. In Oklahoma, there are an estimated 15,000 eligible farm workers, Martinez said.

Martinez, 56, recently sat down with The Oklahoman to share his own success story. This is an edited transcript:

Q: Can you tell us about your roots?

A: Until I was 8, I lived with my grandparents, my mom and her brothers and sisters. My mom was 18 when she had me; I never knew my father. I was born in Texas, in Mission, where my mother was also born and grew up.

Her father, my grandfather, was a native of Mexico and a shrewd entrepreneur. He had a tandem axle truck and would load it with migrants to pick cotton and do other farm work throughout Texas, Oklahoma and other states. My mom, as the oldest female, would go along as the designated cook for our family and any men whose families didn't go with them.

Q: How did you end up in Oklahoma?

A: My mom married, and my stepfather thought it would be a good idea to go along with two other couples to work the sugar beet and cucumber harvests in Minnesota and Wisconsin. With the money we made, we bought an old Plymouth to drive back, but broke down outside Altus en route to south Texas.

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by Paula Burkes
A 1981 journalism graduate of Oklahoma State University, Paula Burkes has more than 30 years experience writing and editing award-winning material for newspapers and healthcare, educational and telecommunications institutions in Tulsa, Oklahoma...
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Position: Executive director, ORO Development Corp.

Hometown: Blanchard

Family: Kim, wife of 36 years; sons Heath, 34, of Houston and Kelley, 29, of Mangum; and five grandchildren, ages 14 and under; no. 6 is on the way

Education: Attended Western Oklahoma State College


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