As executive director of the Jeremiah Program, Gloria Perez ’88 leads a nonprofit making a big difference to impoverished single mothers and their kids.

More than 16 million U.S. children live below the federal poverty line, most of them with their single mothers. That’s equal to the entire populations of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Alabama—three states worth of poor children. How can they hope to escape the multigenerational cycle of poverty?

Through education and employment, according to Gloria Perez ’88, president and CEO of the Jeremiah Program, a nonprofit that has helped some 500 Twin Cities women and children achieve financial independence through a combination of affordable housing, high-quality early childhood education, life skills and empowerment training, and career track education. The Jeremiah Program says it is dedicated to “transforming families from poverty to prosperity two generations at a time.” And that’s not just a catchy tag line to Perez.

She was nine years old when her social worker father died from cancer at age 46. Suddenly, her family’s stable life in a working class San Antonio, Texas, neighborhood was on the line. Her teenaged sisters stumbled into an early marriage and an abusive relationship, but Gloria,in one of life’s decisive moments, made a commitment to herself: “That will not be me.”

When Perez was in elementary school, her mother went back to college. During those years they ate dinner together, and then her mother attended night classes while Perez spent her evenings in the library. The experience was life-changing for her. By the time she was a senior in high school, Perez had begun to research colleges. She admired Minnesota’s education policy and enrolled at another liberal arts college in the state that wasn’t a good cultural fit. Soon she had transferred to Macalester.

photo; Gloria Perez '88“As a person of color, I had felt invisible,” she says, “but at Macalester,I felt like I was seen and heard, validated.” As a student, she began volunteering as a children’s advocate at Casa de Esperanza, which works to end domestic violence in Latino families. By 1995, she was the organization’s executive director.

In 1998 Perez joined the fledgling Jeremiah Program, which last year celebrated its 15th anniversary. In that time the program, which began with 18 residential units in Minneapolis, has grown to 39 units in Minneapolis, 38 in St. Paul, and 4 in Austin, Texas, where a new 30-apartment building will open next year. Jeremiah’s annual budget, once $650,000, is now just over $5 million.

Before applying to the program, each applicant completes a 16-week personal empowerment course, working with a coach for guidance and support, and enrolling in an educational program. About half of those admitted to the program end up earning a bachelor’s degree and the other half earn an associate’s degree. Pragmatism trumps following one’s bliss when choosing a program. “We are very practical about our mission—helping women advance financially,” says Perez.

To be sure, it takes money to make those transformations happen: $25,000 in private donations per woman per year, with an average stay of three years. But the payoff to society is $4 for every $1 spent, through increased taxable earnings and reduced dependence on public assistance for the women and increased earnings and tax revenue, plus reduced criminal justice and special education costs for the kids. “If a mom gets a living wage job, it greatly impacts her children,” says Perez. “It changes their view of themselves and the world. When they grow up seeing their mom doing homework and meeting with a life skills coach, it becomes normal for them. This is something their own mothers almost never had.”

As news of Jeremiah’s success has spread, more and more communities are interested in establishing programs of their own. Fargo, North Dakota, is in the process of purchasing land for a building. Endicott College is collaborating with Jeremiah to bring the program to Boston. The Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York—with 80 percent single mothers—is exploring how to bring the program to families living in existing affordable housing complexes, an approach that could ultimately reach many more families.

Perez’s Macalester connections are coming into play as her organization grows. “When we first looked at collaborating in Boston, I contacted Mac alumni in the area to get the lay of the land,” says Perez. “Even though we hadn’t talked in years, Mac alumni were ready to step up and help.”

Perez’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. She is a fellow of the Ascend program, part of the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute. She was selected as one of 20 national leaders who are pioneering solutions to multigenerational poverty. She received Macalester’s Catharine Lealtad Service to Society Award and has been honored by a host of other civic and educational organizations.

But Perez is aware that she, like her program, hasn’t done it alone. “When Jeremiah was founded by Father Michael J. O’Connell, it was a grassroots program,” says Perez. “I tell interested communities that they need the support of business, education, government, philanthropy, and faith communities if they are going to succeed.”

August 13 2014

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