By Caryn Sullivan | St. Paul Pioneer Press | TeamWomen Member and Guest Columnist
This piece originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on January 20, 2019.
Have you discovered your life’s purpose? Gloria Perez found hers early in life.
Perez spent 10 years in a two-parent family committed to faith, education, and the community. Then her father died of cancer. As a young girl, she witnessed the struggles of a single mother who knew nothing about the family finances or even whether she owned their home.
Refusing to be a victim, her mother became the family advocate. She boldly asked questions, accessed resources, pursued a college degree, and made a good life for herself and her three daughters.
It was Perez’s first — and enduring — lesson in resiliency and empowerment, one she drew upon when she arrived in Minnesota with a commitment to help families like her own.
For the past 20 years Perez has served as the president and CEO of Jeremiah Program, a Minnesota-based nonprofit with a mission to end the cycle of poverty through a dual-track commitment to single mothers and children.
With the family as the hub of a five-spoke wheel, Jeremiah Program ensures mothers and children have access to housing, career-track and early childhood education, and life skills training, all within a supportive community. During Perez’s tenure the program has helped more than 400 families in Minnesota and around the U.S.
Perez never envisioned working with young children. Yet, at Jeremiah Program, in its infancy upon her arrival, she found an opportunity to help mothers and children with whom she could relate. How different might life have been had such a program been available to her mother, she wondered.
In the past 10 years Jeremiah Program has grown by sharing its message and responding to invitations to develop programs in communities that share its mission and will develop the infrastructure to manage it. While it’s operating in geographically diverse communities, Jeremiah Program is spearheading a two-generation model that’s gaining traction nationally as a strategy for addressing poverty.
The women of Jeremiah share common experiences before they arrive. They — and their children — have often witnessed or experienced violence. They feel isolated, cautious, and afraid. That others will invest in them or their future is a foreign and often shocking concept.
With the support of Jeremiah staff and more than a thousand volunteers, they discover that others believe in their worth. They embrace opportunities made possible by the help of many.
They also find kindred spirits in a supportive community in which others appreciate and share their struggles and a desire to rise above them.
They learn about a birthright — that everyone is important, lovable, and valuable, and no one can take that away from them.
While they may struggle to push through obstacles for themselves, they are motivated to do so for their children.
They attend college, enter the workforce, and create stable homes that operate above poverty level. Many become ambassadors for Jeremiah, for the culture encourages paying it forward and giving back.
For Perez it’s gratifying to watch women rise above their insecurities, recognize they have a choice, and shape a different kind of future for themselves and their children.
As she will speak at a TeamWomen luncheon on Wednesday, Perez shares her philosophy about mentoring with Jeremiah mothers. Its value, she says, lies in the accountability an objective partner can offer. A mentor can help the mentee to walk through fear, engage in reflection, and accelerate goals.
Perez prides herself on establishing a bridge between donors and beneficiaries by offering insight and perspective. She helps the women to shift their belief system, explaining that their lot in life isn’t attributed to worth or luck and that, with support and effort, it can change.
Confidence and clarity came early to Perez. When she was 4 years old she survived a serious car accident. Her family deemed it a miracle and convinced her she was spared for a reason.
“I feel like my life’s purpose has been clear to me from a young age,” she told me recently, “because my parents would say to me, ‘you shouldn’t have survived that car accident. You’re a miracle.’”
“When people tell you that, you internalize it, whether it’s true or not,” she said. “You feel that way — like God didn’t take me because I have a purpose.”
The charismatic leader will step away from Jeremiah Program later this year when her successor is on board. With an ambitious new strategic plan in place the timing felt right.
She plans to pause, reflect, and evaluate opportunities so her next gig is the right gig, not one she accepts out of fear, obligation, or whim.
She’ll embark on a wisdom tour, visiting with people she admires in a variety of fields to discover what they’ve learned on their journeys.
Jeremiah Program has allowed Perez to be a good role model for children and to create opportunities for women who wouldn’t otherwise have them. It’s been the work she felt destined to perform.
While she doesn’t know what is in store for her she’s resolved to patiently await the next calling and to position herself so she can confidently say, “Now that’s my new life’s purpose.”
Caryn Sullivan inspires others to find the “better” way in and out of life’s experiences through her columns in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, her award-winning memoir, Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page, and her inspirational keynotes. To read more of her work, purchase a signed copy of Bitter or Better, or engage her as a speaker, visit carynmsullivan.com.