Why We Give: Martina Seo
July 19, 2023
9 min read
Meet Martina Seo.
A vivacious high school home economics teacher from West Vancouver, BC, known for her acts of generosity. She shares her passion for charitable giving with contagious enthusiasm and speaks with warmth and honesty, quickly putting one at ease.
Martina paints a vivid picture of how her upbringing shaped her desire to give. From watching her parents struggle as new immigrants to the enormous impact of a small gift— she delves into her motivations, hard lessons, and what inspires her to give.
Did your family play a role in shaping your generosity?
My parents came from South Korea in 1971, one of the poorest countries at the time. It’s changed a lot with K-pop and BTS and all that, but when they left, it was a war-torn country.
When they immigrated to Canada, they were alone. They didn’t know anyone in Vancouver. They had no money, didn’t speak English, and had no friends or family. So they really struggled and faced a lot of racism and discrimination.
But I remember, maybe over ten times growing up, strangers would call our house from the Vancouver airport and ask for my dad. I’d answer, and they’d say, “Hi, I got your number in Korea from a friend of a friend. Can you come pick us up at the airport and help me? I’m here with my wife and three kids.” They had not contacted us prior.
So, my dad would go to the airport, pick up this random family, and bring them to our home. He’d help them get into a school district, tell them how to get BC Hydro, and set them up with a bank account.
I remember asking, why do you help these people? My mom would say, ‘When we came here, no one helped us, and we remember how hard it was.’ They understood hardship and just wanted to help others who would go through what they went through. I think that ended up having a big impact on me.
Have there been role models in your life who inspired you to give?
We grew up so poor. I knew at a very young age–there’s no Santa. We had no Christmas tree, no presents, no money, no turkey… Nothing.
But one year in grade seven, my mom’s friend’s daughter came by. She’s ten years older than me and didn’t know me well, but she had bought this $10 Body Shop basket for me. It had crinkled pink paper, and it was a raspberry soap, body wash and lotion.
I remember it so vividly because that was my only present that Christmas. I cherished that gift basket for years and years. I didn’t even open it—I put it up on my bedroom shelf and kept it there for ten years. It gave me inspiration and hope that someone out there cared for me.
Things like that change you, you know? If I can do that for somebody else, I want to. I want to pay it forward.
That gift showed me that one small act of generosity and kindness can create a ripple effect, and I want to create as many ripples as possible. That basket impacted my life in such a huge way, and the girl who gave it to me had no idea how huge it was.
Another role model for me growing up was my grade seven teacher. I was ruthlessly bullied from K-7 because I was different. I was ESL, I was short, I was fat, and I faced a lot of racism because I was one of the only Asians in a predominately Caucasian population at my elementary school.
But my teacher, Mrs. Karr, cared about me. She showed me kindness and made me feel like I mattered.
She encouraged my mom to move me away from my bully and into a high school with more scholarships and multiculturalism, where she thought I’d have a better life.
So, I guess I have a heart for kids in need because I know what it feels like to be the recipient of generosity at a young age and know the difference it can make.
Because that teacher really cared about me in grade seven, I had a fresh start when I needed it most. I got those scholarships and went to university because of Mrs. Karr, and I’m sure that has a lot to do with why I became a teacher myself.
What causes are most important to you?
The causes that resonate the most with me help vulnerable children. I believe it’s very important to help those less fortunate than us. Children need the most help and support; we must inspire and help them when they can’t help themselves. There are so many ways we can all help.
I’ve recently started giving to Covenant House, an organization helping teenagers who have found themselves in vulnerable situations. They help teens after they have been kicked out, ran away, or are homeless for other reasons like abuse and poverty. I’ve also worked with World Vision—I managed a booth at Park Royal Mall seeking donations to help vulnerable children in developing countries.
The Harvest Project is another charity I support as a teacher and on my own time. I first heard about it through the school’s fundraisers and gift basket donations. But when the teachers were on strike in 2016, I almost went to the Harvest Project for myself.
I had used up all my savings and maxed out my credit cards, and I ate everything out of my cupboards and fridge/freezer and debated going to Harvest Project for help. Fortunately, my parents helped me financially until I could get back on my feet, but not everyone is so lucky.
Food is so important, and anything can happen to us. We can get into a car accident, natural disaster, lose a family member, lose a job, etc. Life is too short not to care for each other.
Do you talk about charitable giving in the classroom?
I do talk about it. We talk about how we’ll go through hard times, and all need help at some point. It’s important to help those in need. So many people helped me growing up.
There’s just no point in hoarding what you’ve been blessed with for yourself. If I have two jackets, why wouldn’t I share one with someone without a jacket this winter? If I have a cookie, why wouldn’t I cut it in half and share it with a friend?
We also discuss food security because I teach Foods 9 – 12 at West Vancouver Secondary School. It’s so important to bring awareness about food security in our communities.
We do a food drive during Christmas to help those in need. Every December, we donate to the Harvest Project Food Bank in North Vancouver. It’s the closest one to our school, and we have an established relationship with them.
We’ve done food drives, clothing drives, money drives, and gathered presents for kids for holiday gift baskets.
What would you say to people thinking about giving more?
This might be super cliche, but when you give your time, your money, your love, and your energy…it’s so rewarding.
You realize how big the world is to focus on yourself—it’s so small. My pastor always said, ‘Where you put your money is where your heart is.’ By focusing on the people you love in your community, you’re investing in a legacy.
It’s so important to give because it makes us all better. Not only you, but it makes the person receiving and the people watching you better. I watch other people give, and it makes me want to be generous. When people are generous with you, you want to be generous with others, you know?
You just never know who’s going to be inspired by you.
We’re on a mission to explore why people give. Through candid conversations with donors, we’re unearthing stories that ignite compassion and remind us that a single charitable act can create a ripple effect that travels farther than we could ever imagine.
Behind every act of generosity is a story. If you’d like to share yours or nominate someone whose generosity inspires you, reach out to [email protected]