Chances Are

In 1982, when Sandra Dee Martinez bought the club she would turn into Chances, she had no idea it would lead to local fame for her and national recognition for her business. Certainly, she couldn't foresee how bar ownership would lead her to become one of Austin's most active and appreciated volunteers. Mostly, she noticed the glaring lack of places to go, hang out, talk, catch good live music and decided -- along with her the-partner -- to create the place that would grow to become as much a community center as it was a watering hole.

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

Remembered primarily as a lesbian bar, Chances -- on the site that is now Club DeVille -- was so much more. While technically your basic, for-profit lesbian bar, the club was inviting to those from all walks, and featured countless benefits over the years. When the doors closed in '94, the loss was lamented by thousands of patrons -- women, men, straight, gay -- who had reveled inside the tiny club, played volleyball out back, sat gathered around the boulder-backed stage under the night sky, taking in music, readings, and performance art.

"It was a gay mens' bar when I bought it," recalls Martinez. "My partners and I didn't know the gay bar business, so we left it as a men's bar for a couple of months." Her ultimate decision rocked her client base and staff. She decided to open Chances up to more than just gay male patrons.

"When I lost my partners in '86, I was faced with the questions: 'Do I close? Can I really do this by myself?'" says Martinez. "I wasn't feeling very confident about which direction to take the bar." In addition to welcoming an open clientele and adding regular music and performance, Martinez decided it was time to take the coverings off the windows. She remembers, "That was a huge changeover. A lot of the original regulars said they wouldn't come back because they could be seen. A lot of people challenged me. I felt strongly and said, 'It's important that we open the windows and the whole environment. We were opening up our little secret, opening up a look inside the club.' I thought it was a survival tactic for both the bar and the gay community."

As it turned out, Chances' inventive open policy encountered no resistance. In fact, the client base only grew, more and more acts, straight, gay, and whatever, were welcome to play, and ultimately the club -- thanks to both Martinez's business acumen and the incredible ambiance of the outdoor stage -- became one of Austin's top clubs in which to catch live acts.

It was the constant request for benefit space, though, that led to Martinez's status as Volunteer Extraordinaire. "Volunteerism fell in my lap because of Chances," she says. "It was an automatic setup for music, plays, readings. We hosted a lot of benefits -- for the Rape Crisis Center, Aids Services of Austin, T.A.R.A.L. ... for so many organizations. I learned how important people behind these benefits were and the elements of successful fundraising. That made me a candidate for future fundraising."

Martinez sticks to the matter-of-fact details when asked how she came to be such a tireless, dedicated volunteer. Shy, and embracing the now very private life she carefully carved when she closed Chances, what she won't detail at length are the other factors that drive her. Even more deeply dedicated to friends and family than she is to the causes she tirelessly serves, a look at her "spare" time activities is revealing.

"Sandra has such a great love for people in general and I think it's so obvious when it comes to her niece and nephew and the time she dedicates to them as an extension of her busy day," says Martinez's sister Melissa Arndt, who adds that her sibling's already highly visible creativity and genuiness is magnified in the presence of kids.

Martinez's brother-in-law, Tim Arndt, concurs with his wife, and says of "Aunt Dra," as his children call her, "Sandra is humble, she just thinks she's just one little piece in a massive puzzle. One little piece of cloth from the quilt."

Really, Martinez is more like the thread, holding together so many projects she's undertaken over the years. Hosting benefits led to an offer for a position on the board of directors with Project Transitions, a nonprofit that benefits AIDS victims. This was before protease inhibitors, when the diagnosis of AIDS was assumed an instant death sentence. She accepted the challenge as a way to do something positive in the face of a very negative period.

"All my friends were dying of AIDS, that was the real motivating factor for me at the time -- the biggest reason to volunteer," she asserts. Combining her savvy with her creativity and compassion, she struck upon an ongoing fundraising idea. "I approached Charlotte Hale and suggested we start a thrift store. She embraced the idea and two years later we opened Top Drawer Thrift Store." Martinez resigned from the board to manage the store -- still a thriving success -- in addition to running Chances at the time.

Eventually, all that effort took a toll. Also, Martinez was facing increased taxes and changing liability risks with Chances. And so, after 12 years in the limelight she neither fathomed at the start nor consciously cultivated over the years, she sent a letter to all on Chances' mailing list telling them the party was over. "I never got into the business anticipating I would be in it this long and that it would dominate my life the way it did. It was like an addiction, I guess. There were other things I wanted to do." As she had when her partners left, again she examined her direction. "I asked, 'Do I continue with this community center we've become or do I step back and say you really need to take care of yourself?' I went back to school for two years after I closed the club, resigned from Top Drawer, and made all these drastic changes. Then I was really lost. I never thought about what Chances had done for the community until after we'd closed. I kept hearing, 'Would you ever consider doing it again? Do you realize what we lost when you closed?' over and over," Martinez humbly relates. And while she suggests a Chances reunion may occur one day, she's certain her days in the bar business are over.

Volunteerism, however, is another matter. During those two years of searching and re-creating herself, Martinez hooked up with Dobie Theatre owner and Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF) Artistic Director Scott Dinger. "The festival is in its 11th year now," she says. "In its seventh year, Scott wanted to make it a nonprofit." Dinger, though, had no experience in the nonprofit arena, and so he convinced Martinez to join him. She rose through the ranks from board member to board president to her current full-time, year-round, paid position as executive director.

"One of the greatest benefits for me was to get away from the death and dying side of AIDS. It was a pleasant switch going into film and art and education in a non-bar environment, to know I could serve in other ways. The goal of the festival is to educate and promote gay and lesbian films and videos to all communities. It's the largest gay event that exists in Austin -- for two weeks we see over 10,000 people through the theatre. And we're getting national recognition."

"Sandra has energy and enthusiasm for everything she does," says Dinger. "I think she has a great ability to motivate people without becoming a dictator. She motivates people because they enjoy working with her -- she's so fun to work with. And they're motivated just knowing her and her commitment. When she started off, she was the volunteer coordinator -- it takes a lot of volunteers to put on the festival -- she was able to bring in so many people who had worked with her before and knew her style and were eager to work with her again."

Martinez agrees that her corps of volunteers are dedicated, "For this year's festival, we had around 400 volunteers put in over 1,000 hours of time. The volunteers are very loyal." Explaining her success, she says, "If I'm going to ask someone to do something, I get in there and do it with them. What's hard for a volunteer is when they don't see the same level of commitment from their coordinators."

It is telling of her quiet preference for behind-the-scenes accomplishments how Martinez handles the question of awards. When asked if she's received any, the most she'll say is, "Yeah," then, flashing her quick and charismatic smile and bursting out laughing at her own obvious reticence to blow her own horn, she reveals it was an award that brought her to Austin in the first place. "I graduated early from high school, in '72, and I wasn't going to go to college right away. But I received the first athletic scholarship for a woman from Concordia and I accepted."

Through this busy decade, her collection has grown to include official titles and recognition from Christopher House in 1996, from AIDS Services of Austin in 1995, from Texas Human Rights Foundation and Austin Lesbian & Latino Gay Organization of Austin (ALLGO) in 1994; from AIDS Services of Austin in 1992; and from the Texas School for the Blind in 1990.

As with her other accomplishments, Martinez is straightforward discussing these marks of gratitude bestowed upon her. It's clear she's not in this line of work looking for the perks and public recognition that go along with being as skilled as she is. "She likes to get the awards," says Tim Arndt, "but then, she also puts credit back on the volunteers."

Sharing the credit. Sharing the responsibility. Sharing. How very fundamental to volunteerism. How very fundamental to Sandra Martinez.

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