Andy Martin knew he couldn't change the world. But he was pretty sure he could change things for the better in the small corner of it that was his.
In 1977, he started work on the night shift at St. Joseph's Home for Children in south Minneapolis, trying to make life just a bit better for children who'd seen the world at its worst.
"I just have this little niche in the world," said Martin, whose service to Minnesota kids and Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis continued for decades. "I can make my corner better. Every little thing makes a difference."
Martin retired this summer after 45 years with Catholic Charities, a career that started out as just a job. He would work at St. Joe's until he could go to graduate school and become a therapist with patients he could help for the one hour a day he was there.
But he quickly realized how many more hours there were in a day to help those in need.
"Change occurs, not during the one hour you're meeting, but all the other hours," he said. "It's the little things that help make the change."
Martin would have many jobs with Catholic Charities over the years. He worked nights for almost half his years with the nonprofit — 13 years at the start of his career, then moved to cushy administrative positions and back to nights for the last seven.
Those night shifts were the hours when the kids really needed someone there for them, when they would lie awake and think about hurting themselves. The kids who stuffed down their anger at the system, the judge, the world during the day — only to have it come bubbling up at night.
There are rules against midnight snacks and roaming about at night, but those rules are less important than being there for a child who just needs to talk.
"Let's take a walk," Martin would tell them. "Let's sit down and have a cup of hot chocolate."
It's tempting in those situations to try to solve their problems for them. But if someone's feeding you the answers, you'll never learn how to work through a problem on your own.
"We used to give them advice, and oh God, that felt good, giving all this advice," Martin said with a laugh. "That's where I learned that giving doesn't help as much as teaching."
He ended his years at Hope Street, a Catholic Charities shelter in Minneapolis that helps teens and young adults transition to independent living. Martin remembers the staff working for hours with one youngster, trying to help him get the hang of how to cook an egg.
"We want the youth to leave Hope Street and not come back," he said. "But we'll be here if they do come back. It might take a few tries."
As Martin was teaching, he was also learning. He remembers sitting with a group of three agitated young women, all taking shots at him. Confused by one of the insults, he asked for a definition. But the girls couldn't agree on the accepted current usage of the term.
"Word usage changes weekly," one of the youngsters explained. And just like that, a tense confrontation shifted into a symposium on language. They talked so long, other staffers poked their heads in to make sure everyone was OK.
"The four of us got into a great discussion about words," Martin said. "I brought up some old words I learned from my grandfather. We'd gotten into a great place just having a nice discussion about words and how they've changed."
Now he's stepped down, with the blessing of a grateful Catholic Charities. He won't stop looking for small ways to make the world a bit better. That's why he donates blood, knowing each donation helps many strangers.
"I can make some little differences," Martin said. "And that does make a difference."