While growing up, if J.R. Martinez wasn’t playing sports at school — basketball, football or track — he “had nothing else to do.”

That’s why he was so impressed with his adopted hometown of Dalton after touring the Boys & Girls Club of Gordon, Murray and Whitfield Counties facility Thursday afternoon. Later that evening, Martinez was the keynote speaker at the group’s annual “Stake Dinner” that attracted several hundred guests.

“I think that was one of the key things our youths missed, to be entertained, to be occupied, to exercise your mind, be exposed to different things, be amongst their peers, allow them to be children, not be on the street and grow up to be adults and do things they should be doing,” Martinez said at the banquet. “A lot of people missed out on the opportunity to be part of the Boys & Girls Club.”

Martinez is a 2002 Dalton High School graduate, an injured Iraq War veteran, an actor, a motivational speaker and the most recent winner of ABC’s television show “Dancing With the Stars.” Martinez was born in Shreveport, La., and lived in Hope, Ark., before moving to Dalton the summer before his senior year of high school in 2001. He resided here a short time after graduation.

In March 2003, Martinez was seriously injured in an explosion in Iraq, suffering burns to more than 40 percent of his body. Although his stay here was brief, Martinez considers Dalton his hometown. His mother, Maria Zavala, still lives in Dalton while Martinez resides in Los Angeles.

While in Dalton Thursday, Martinez also visited Eastbrook Middle School and Southeast High School. He said the response he received from the children was overwhelming — and a little embarrassing.

“Everywhere I went, it was, ‘Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, sir. I know you’re raised in the South and taught to say sir and ma’am, but come one, I’m only 28,” Martinez said with a laugh.

Martinez said he enjoyed talking to the kids. He even found time to sneak in a few minutes of video game playing.

 The local Boys and Girls Club serves more than 1,800 children and has seen the need for its services grow recently. Children arrive at the club after school at 3:25 p.m. and stay until their parents pick them up at 6:30 p.m. five days a week

“It’s comforting that there is somewhere in Dalton, Ga., kids can be themselves,” Martinez said. “They have a place where they can feel comfortable, learn and grow.”

Martinez is currently working on his book, which will be released later this year. He will be in Dalton for the next few days taking in the sights with his ghostwriter.

The local Boys & Girls Club also recognized Allayah Carr, the club’s 2012 “Youth of the Year.” Carr, a senior at Calhoun High School, plans to attend the University of West Georgia this fall.

Two of the club’s founding members — Jim Jolly and John Neal — were inducted into the “Circle of Champions” and were lauded for their contributions.

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