Some of Gloria Perez’s earliest memories include filling the family’s old Buick with day-old bread and delivering it to poor families in the San Antonio projects with her father, Alvino, a social worker with St. Vincent de Paul.
“It was my father’s way of helping my mom out by getting the kids out of the house,” said Perez. “He also thought it was a chance to give us insight into people in different circumstances than ours. The people didn’t have much but they welcomed us.”
The trips to the projects were a “joyful” experience that led to coffee and conversation, she said, but also memorable because her father died of cancer when she was just 10. That meant growing up with a single mother who worked full time as a secretary while going to school to get her college degree. Her mother, Nora, also joined Toastmasters to be able to present herself better in public.
Perez’s mom taught her valuable lessons about education, hard work and diligence. Now CEO of the Jeremiah Program, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, Perez does for dozens of single moms exactly what her mother did for her: help them get housing, day care for their children, and jobs while they pursue a college degree.
“While my dad’s premature death was destabilizing, my mom often says that it made her stronger,” Perez said. “She had to learn how to be independent and lead; she became the sole breadwinner and spiritual guide for the family. My mom’s deep faith, perseverance and adventurous spirit — she will try anything once — has always inspired me to follow my dreams and live life to the fullest.”
Perez’s mother often dragged her off to class or to the library to study, so she got to see that an advanced education was possible.
“She wanted to expose me to the college environment,” said Perez. “I remember thinking what a burden it was, why couldn’t I just play with my friends like everybody else?”
The Jeremiah Program was the brainchild of the Rev. Michael J. O’Connell, who chose Perez to run Jeremiah just a few months after he created it, and she’s been there since.
“He’s to blame for this,” Perez joked.
The program has become one of the nation’s most successful ways of bringing families from poverty to prosperity, two generations at a time. Jeremiah helps single mothers with job skills while getting their young children ready for school. The ultimate goal is to get them to be self sufficient and not dependent on public assistance.
Word of the program, which is based in Minneapolis, has spread, with campuses now in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Austin, Texas. Another is beginning in the Fargo-Moorhead area. It also introduced a model in Boston, and the communities of Rochester, Minn.; Brownsville, N.Y., and Charlottesville, Va., are developing plans to bring Jeremiah to the area.
If it sounds like remarkable growth, it is, but it was all part of the plan from the start, Perez said.
“Something needed to be done to create success for young women with children,” she said. “We realized you can’t help mothers without helping their children because the issues are so intertwined.”
Perez recalls the day she and O’Connell sat on a bench at Macalester College and discussed the idea.
“We looked around the country and didn’t see anything like Jeremiah,” said Perez. “We thought that if it was as good an idea as we thought it was, it could be spread around the country. People started calling us within 90 days of the start of our program.”
That led to campuses where the women live together while they study and attend classes. Their children live with them and attend quality day care. The kids are encouraged to go to classes with their moms so that they, like Perez, can picture themselves in higher education.
But Perez’s career trajectory was an unusual one. She graduated from Macalester, then right out of school she bought a franchise restaurant, the Westside Cafe, an offshoot of the Uptowner, where she was a waitress.
The waitressing job helped pay for school, but it also “gave me experience in building social capital,” said Perez. “People would come in, doctors, lawyers, police officers, and I’d ask them about their jobs. It gave me a lot of insight in different careers, which ones I’d like and which ones I wouldn’t. We worked seven days a week and made a living with our own elbow grease.”
She eventually sold the restaurant and took over the reins of the Jeremiah Program.
Expanding the program has been a challenge, but one she relishes.
“Every community proves to be unique. The only thing that’s consistent is our commitment to the outcomes,” Perz said. “I think my life experiences and my education at Macalester helped me bring knowledge to recognize the barriers for getting out of poverty.”
Using that knowledge to help women has been a blessing, she said.
“In the age of outrage, it’s a dose of hope.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin