This is the fourth article in an ongoing series, which seeks to showcase some of our schools’ unsung heroes.
In my 10 years as an education reporter and as a former educator, and in my almost 19 years as a parent, I have seen many amazing educators honored with well-deserved pomp and circumstance. They each will be the first to tell you that they share their honors with their colleagues, that they could not do what they do each day without the support of so many. It is my goal during this school year to shed some much-needed light on those employees working behind the scenes in Cranston schools who may not receive the spotlight, but for whom it is also well deserved.
At 34 years old, “Coach” Nicole Renzulli-Martins is the youngest of my unsung heroes so far and her role in supporting students takes place largely outside of the regular school day, but yet her effect on them is long lasting and far-reaching.
The newly appointed middle school cross country coach for Western Hills Middle School just wrapped up her team's fall season a week prior when we met for lunch. She'd left her two-year-old twins Francesca and Jovanna at home with her husband Joseph, and her son Anthony was at school when she took some time to meet. Even though they were not with her at the time, they each had been a familiar face at practices and meets throughout the season, a glimpse into Renzulli-Martin's family life and, even more than that, a look at the many times she was seen keeping all her balls in the air. As the old saying goes, as it turns out, that was just the half of it.
Renzulli-Martins was recommended to me as a potential Unsung Hero by Rachel Marchetti, who until this year was a fellow Woodridge Elementary School PTO parent. She had stepped in to help as a volunteer at Renzulli-Martins’ first official citywide cross country meet, which was being hosted at Western Hills, even though Marchetti didn't have a child on the team. As the Vice President of the Woodridge parent organization, Renzulli-Martins was one who had often stepped up and stepped in to help out when Marchetti was a parent and president there, and Marchetti was now returning the favor. It was what she saw at that event, which prompted her to recommend that I recognize Renzulli Martins.
“I befriended Nicole through the PTO at Woodridge and have seen her commitment to the kids there. It carries through to cross-country. As an outsider looking in on the day of the meet, I saw runners who were enthusiastic to be there and to be a part of a program that Nicole is building,” Marchetti said. “Both the runners and Nicole have a mutual respect for each other and that was evident in their excitement for the meet. The runners had assignments and knew exactly what they should be doing. She does an excellent job of delegating the responsibility so they have a vested interested in what's happening beyond just running in the meet. She's got a bright future as a coach.”
Renzulli-Martins is now the coach at the same school where she was a student, and she was on the cross country team there as well as on the cross country and track teams at Cranston High School West, where she graduated in 2002. She was also a runner while in college at Florida State University, majoring in English and graduating early before heading back to Rhode Island where she began a career in communications.
“Before I had my twins I worked for the state of Rhode Island in the Health Insurance Commissioner’s office in communications,” she said. “After they were born I needed more flexibility. I needed to be able to put my family first.”
Renzulli-Martins has found that flexibility by working at the Thirsty Beaver, where she works for the owners who are fellow CHSW alumni, as well as working as a health and wellness coach for Advocare and working as a beauty consultant for a natural beauty company, Beautycounter. She is also a coach of the CLCF indoor/outdoor track and helps with their cross-country team too when she’s not coaching her own team at WHMS. Her son is also a runner and her twins were even in a movie last summer, sharing the role of one of the main characters.
“I guess I’m kind of a Jill of all trades. That’s the nature of an over-achiever. I have a lot of balls in the air, but some balls are higher than others,” she said. “My husband is very supportive of all my schedules. He thinks I’m crazy but he loves my crazy.”
Although it seems as if that’s already a lot of balls to have in the air, Renzulli-Martins is also the current Mrs. United States Italia.
“I won that last October,” she said. “It was the first time I’d ever been in a pageant and I did it at the recommendation of friends. I have stage fright and I wanted to overcome it. I had done a fitness show before and that was sort of similar, so I thought that maybe at this point I could try to do it. I’m proud to be an Italian. I live in Knightsville and I thought that if I wanted to honor my heritage that would be the one to do. I like to be involved with charities and this made me more able to do so.”
Renzulli-Martins has been able to connect much of she does to her job as a coach, including that connection to the importance of community service.
“Now that I’m coaching, I think what better way to bring a connection to community service to the kids,” she said. “They like to do community service and a lot of them need to do community service. I’ve done some work with Toys for Tots and Gotta Have Sole and I hope to be able to bring those connections to the kids.”
Renzulli-Martins said that she loved her first year as the coach at WHMS and her boys’ team went into the state meet undefeated. “I think that I created a culture here by focusing on the whole athlete versus just a runner on the team. I hope to be able to keep growing the program at Western Hills,” she said. “My son will be there in two years.”
Renzulli-Martins used her knowledge and work as a health and wellness coach to help the students focus on their own health and wellness, and incorporated optional nutrition journals into their time on the team, which she checked regularly and provided feedback for, helping them to learn when they needed to increase their water intake or when to get some extra sleep.
“Eating healthy and drinking water are secret weapons for kids before a race and provides a huge advantage over an athlete of the same ability in a race,” she said. “The journals weren’t mandatory and I didn’t think so many children would do it. It helped me to connect with them and to understand them as student-athletes. Everything they’re doing affects their performance. A lot of the kids read my notes and they changed what they were doing. You could see the positive effects it had on them at the practices.”
Renzulli-Martins believes that coaching is like a calling rather than a job.
“I like to give to others and I like to see people grow,” she said. “At the end of the season, I got cards from the kids and the ones that I didn’t necessarily think I’d reached, I did. My goal is for all the kids to believe in themselves, and the whole point is to improve, not necessarily to win the race. Old school coaching often pushes kids down instead of lifting them up. I look at coaching like parenting, with more positive reinforcement. Often kids that have potential get pushed through the cracks. The kids know how much I care. I’m going to be firm, but kind and they respond so much better.”
Renzulli-Martins didn’t realize until she became a coach how much influence a coach can have on their students, and she takes her role very seriously.
“I always think about all of these kids all the time,” she said. “They come and tell me how they did on a test or if they’re running for student council, or even if they got in trouble. There’s so much stuff that kids can get into online, on their phones, and I think it’s so important to be an extra adult in their lives. If they’re in some kind of trouble, they might tell me, and I need to be there for them. It’s important for kids to know that we are there for them.”
As the season came to a close, Renzulli-Martins realized what an important part she had in fact, played in her students’ lives.
“You never know how people feel about you, or even if you’re having a positive impact on them,” she said. “You hope so, but you may never know until later or until they tell you. There is a Maya Angelou quote that says that people will always remember how you treated them, and as a coach, we have such an opportunity to teach kids so much about life and sports. So much of it goes hand in hand, but if you don’t take the time to teach them about life you’re doing them a disservice. We’re raising other people, teaching them to be good people. There may not be so many who are going on in sports, but they’re all going to be going on in life.”
If you have an Unsung Hero you’d like me to feature from a Cranston school, please email me with the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.