116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
“It's important not to count people out,” Sofia DeMartino said.
“It's important not to do, no matter what you may think of their circumstances or where they've come from because given the right opportunities, and given the right support, people can go change the world.”
That’s exactly what DeMartino is doing in day-to-day work at Horizons, A Family Service Alliance where she advocates for those in need.
A native of Queens, N.Y., DeMartino grew up in Iowa City. A single mom at the age of 16, she got kicked out of high school for being pregnant.
She then enrolled in Kirkwood Community College for its high school completion program, which allowed students to complete their high school learning at their own pace.
“I knocked out two years’ worth of schoolwork in about six months, so I ended up graduating when I was 16,” she recalled.
DeMartino spent a brief time living in Des Moines trying to get her collegiate career off to an early start, but looking back realizes she wasn’t ready to take that on at that time in her life. She moved back to the Iowa City area and began working to pay off the student loans she has taken out.
She later moved to Cedar Rapids with her two daughters to enroll in classes full time at Kirkwood.
“It was just a completely different experience at that time than in Iowa City where to be in poverty it felt like you were excluded from a lot of things,” DeMartino said.
In Cedar Rapids she found out there were free movies where she could take her children in the summer, and there were splash pads where they could play. And she could afford to pay rent on a place where her children could have their own rooms.
She also found help in navigating the world of social services.
“They did so in a way that supported you in achieving your goals,” she said.
DeMartino got her children enrolled in Head Start, she started received food assistance through WIC, and they had help with medical expenses and appointments. She also was able to get a vehicle through a work program.
“Because of all these support programs I was really able to change the trajectory of our lives,” she said.
One of those programs was a housing assistance program through Horizons that matched rent payments with grant funds that were distributed into an escrow account to be used as a downpayment on buying a home.
“I had no idea I was ever going to work for Horizons and didn’t even make the connection when I applied for the job later that this organization had been part of helping me get to where I was,” DeMartino noted.
But when she saw the listing for a job with the organization, she felt called to it.
“I was like, nobody's going to be more committed to these goals than me and nobody is going to understand this community that Horizons is serving better than me. Nobody is going to want more success for the people that we are trying to serve and help for the people that we are trying to serve.”
For five years, DeMartino operated the Meals on Wheels program for Horizons, which is the largest such program in the state of Iowa.
“It was my first opportunity in my professional life to work in leadership. And it was a really important program in the community, and I was trusted with that,” she said.
For the past year, DeMartino’s role has shifted more toward grant writing.
“We needed to figure out a way to cover the costs of our programs without being able to have our typical fundraisers during the pandemic,” she said. “They asked me to write a grant and it worked out pretty well, so they asked me to write another. So now my role is community relations and grants director.”
Outside work, DeMartino is one of the founders of the Black Maternal Health Collective, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of maternal health care inequity and saving the lives of Black mothers.
The group has gathered stories in the community and paired it with research highlighting that while nationwide Black women died at a rate of three to one versus white women during childbirth, here in Iowa that figure is six to one. Today, the group is working to form a dedicated not-for-profit organization.
A Kirkwood mentor encouraged her to join the campus Democrats group, which she led at one time. She was inspired to go on to the University of Iowa and Mount Mercy University, earning a bachelor of arts in political science and an M.B.A.
“It’s important for my daughters to see me in a leadership role,” she said of both her work and volunteer interests.
“In addition, there are conversations I’ve had with other little girls, particularly girls of color, who look at me and say, ‘You are somebody’s boss? And you are Black?’
“It’s important that I get to have those conversations because there are still places, particularly here in Iowa, where it can be challenging to be seen as someone who can lead based on the color of your skin. It’s important that representation exists. And I’m grateful I have that opportunity.”
Once a month Business 380 spotlights some of HER Magazine’s Women of Achievement, published by The Gazette. The awards were sponsored by Farmers State Bank.