LAWRENCE — Mercedes Martes-Rodriguez does not see her six grandchildren much because they live in Switzerland, Germany and Chile.
Instead, her grandmotherly affection goes to local children in the Head Start program where she volunteers.
Martes-Rodriguez, 60, logged 1,760 hours as a volunteer last year — the equivalent of 44, 40-hour weeks. That was 200 hours more than the previous year. She was the top volunteer out of 124 men and women honored yesterday at the Elks Club in Lawrence for giving their time at one of the five Head Start programs run by Greater Lawrence Community Action Council.
Head Start Director Anne D’Errico said the 124 volunteers honored yesterday logged a combined 31,000 hours last year.
“It’s about everybody coming together, the community, parents and partners,” D’Errico said. “We feel privileged to make you understand what you do and how each individual makes an important contribution, and you do this simply by giving of yourself.”
Martes-Rodriguez said there is nothing she would rather do.
“The children mean everything to me. They bring me happiness, laughter and are part of my life,” said the mother of five and grandmother of six.
“They benefit from my company, and I feel happy that I’m giving them something that they may not have.”
Martes-Rodriguez was born in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and grew up in Venezuela. She immigrated to New York in 1987 and moved to Lawrence several years later.
She greets the children in the morning with hugs and comforts those who are sad. During the day, she plays with them, dances and teaches Spanish to those who want to learn the language. At meal time, she encourages picky eaters to dig so they’ll grow up to be big and strong.
Yesterday’s event also recognized community partners, including The Giving Tree of Boxford; Small Smiles Dental Clinic, Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, Smile Dental Center, Foster Grandparents of the Merrimack Valley, all of Lawrence; and Dr. Maritza Morell of Andover.
“Early childhood education and health care are incredibly important, so when they asked me to volunteer, it was hard to say no,” said Dr. John Raser, a family physician at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center.