Lourdes Perez strives to help improve the lives of others, she told members of Soroptimist last week, after making it through a number of uphill challenges that started before she became a Mexican immigrant.
A member of the Ceres Unified School District board, Perez is the program coordinator for the Ceres Partnership. She labels herself as a public servant who loves to help others, she explained as the guest speaker at the Soroptimists' annual "Women of Distinction" event.
Perez said she lived a happy childhood growing up in Michoacan, Mexico, despite an abusive alcoholic father who beat on her mother. She cowered in the corner trembling during the assaults. Because of her grandparents who came to the rescue, Lourdes said she was able to come out of shock and fear. She spent three years with her grandparents before coming to the United States.
"My grandfather was a very hard worker and he would love to help others and I think that's where I learned that to be blessed you have to bless others," said Perez. "You have to give, give back to your community, not only because it's part of life, but because it brings you gratification, it brings you good."
The family came to the U.S. on a temporary visa so her parents could work in the fields and on dairies. Lourdes was 15 then and started attending Modesto High School as a freshman. She was inspired by her uncle and aunt who pushed her to learn and read English. As an immigrant student in basic courses, Lourdes said she struggled through discrimination.
"That helped me really focus on what I was there for. I was there to learn and to become someone someday."
A trip to Washington, D.C. for a weeklong conference was a turning point for Perez. She learned leadership skills and even met President Clinton.
"It was a life changing event for me. Because of this fortune, I now like politics. I now understand what civic engagement means."
She was a part of the Hispanic Youth Leadership Council at her school and got involved as a leader in community service projects.
While in her second year at California State University, Stanislaus, her parents were called for an interview with immigration officials in Ciudad Juarez near El Paso, Texas.
"The immigration officer was extremely intimidating - that's their job - very rude and denied our permanent residency and our permit was going to expire the next day. I was devastated. I thought I'm not going to be able to continue my education. That, for me, was everything. That was my world back then."
The Border Patrol allowed the family to take care of business. Lourdes finished the semester and found out that her tuition costs quadrupled because she was now considered a non-resident. Scholarships helped but the added costs were an economic impediment. Through help of then Congressman Gary Condit - he wrote a letter to Clinton - and the university allowed her to stay as a resident.
"It's about not giving up for me and really staying focused."
Lourdes earned her bachelor's degree in Business Administration and worked in the private sector. About nine years ago she was hired by the Center for Human Resources to work in the Ceres Partnership office. The non-profit organization offers programs and services to families in need which strengthen them.
Today Perez volunteers for Vision y Compromisa, a group which reaches out to Latino families. The group disseminated information during the last presidential election.
"There was a huge need for education to encourage eligible voters to come out and vote."
She said she enjoys serving as a School Board member because CUSD is a place where parents, students and students feel engaged.
"For me, it's also about ensuring that the district offers the opportunity for those in most need, that we ensure that we have equity, that we ensure that those students with the greatest need also have the opportunity to get to the end goal, which is attaining their college, attaining a successful career, a family and being productive citizens."
She particularly takes delight in the Lucas Dual Language Immersion Academy and the Patricia "Kay" Beaver Leadership Academy.
Perez said placing computer tablets in the hands of all students last year was a "huge accomplishment for the district."
She also serves youth as a catechism teacher and in other ministries at St. Jude's Catholic Church.
"I love doing this piece that I do in the community. For me it's not about receiving, it's not about expecting to receive, it's about giving. Giving in gratitude for what God provides us. He gives us so much and many times we don't recognize that or we expect more than we have. I think my purpose in life is to serve others as Jesus came to serve others. It's why I'm so involved in church."
She finished up her talk with a saying of Mother Teresa's: "Don't wait for good times to be happy. Simply be happy and good times will come."
"Happiness is really a state of mind. It's what you intend to do with your life and the way you intend to look at your life. That's I love this. I think we all need to be happy. Welcome the unknown. Sometimes we have to welcome even the hardships and difficult times."