POMONA - Richard Martinez isn't afraid of hard work and challenges because he's faced them before.

Martinez, who last week was appointed superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District, was raised by his aunt Ignacia Lopez after his parents relationship ended.

At the time Martinez was a 2-year-old and Lopez, who Martinez lovingly refers to as Nacha, was 65. She had already raised children of her own but took on the responsibility of raising her nephew.

She was far more than an aunt, Martinez said.

"She was my Rock of Gibralter," he said.

The woman with a third-grade education who was originally from the Mexican state of Aguascalientes instilled in Martinez a strong work ethic, faith in God, and encouraged him to pursue higher education.

She kept tabs on his academic performance and taught Martinez to be persistent when searching for answers to questions about educational opportunities.

His sixth-grade teacher played a significant role in Martinez life. CJ Whitcomb and her husband planted the idea of college and exposed him to life outside of his East Los Angeles neighborhood.

Even as a boy "I knew he had all the potential to be extremely successful," Whitcomb said.

As a sixth-grader Martinez was optimistic, honest, and trustworthy - traits that continue with him, she said.

He "really cares about everyone," she said.

Martinez started mowing lawns as a boy to have spending money continued to do so as he grew.

His work as a gardener and as a bookkeeper, jobs he held concurrently at times, allowed him to pay for his college education.

Martinez earned a degree in social work from Cal State Los Angeles with the goal of working for what is now the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Service.

But instead of working for the county an internship with the Bell Gardens Police Department led to a position working as a crisis intervention counselor.

The long hours and the sometimes dangerous nature of the work put pressure on his marriage and Martinez began looking for a new career path that took him to education.

He took a job as a truant officer with the Montebello Unified School District but wasn't happy. Friends recommended he consider guidance counseling.

"I tried it and fell in love," Martinez said.

He worked with a wide variety of children. Some were at risk, others were in special education and others had different needs.

However, Martinez saw the potential in them, just as others had seen in him and he worked to help them.

Martinez's work took him to districts in Orange County, his responsibilities growing but always involved in the welfare of children

He came to Pomona as a director in pupil services in 2001 drawn by the chance to work with students similar to those he worked with at the start of his career.

In Pomona Martinez has worked in different areas including serving as assistant superintendent of pupil and community services before being appointed interim superintendent in August.

As assistant superintendent Martinez worked closely with Melendez de Santa Ana.

"I learned from the best," Martinez said. "She wanted to be a change agent for children."