Debra Joy Perez’s fund at the Community Foundation was inspired by the story of a girl who attended Trenton Central High School with no realistic prospects—in fact, hardly a serious thought or even hope—of attending college. The girl was one of nine children whose hardworking, cash-strapped Puerto Rican parents had no more than third-grade educations. Tight money meant no after-school activities, no summer camps, no academic tutoring or test-prep classes. Instead, the days and nights in her neighborhood featured violence, racism, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, mental illness, poverty, and homelessness.
There was little reason to imagine a future any better than that. But because of a remarkable small act by one of her counselors, the young woman applied to college, got accepted, and worked her way through school. Today, that determined Latina from Trenton has two masters degrees, a PhD from Harvard, and a national reputation as a thought leader and speaker in the philanthropic world.
Debra Perez thinks of this compelling story often, because it is her own.
“An exceptional high-school guidance counselor, Mrs. Garces, encouraged me to fill out an application to Douglass College,” Debra recalls. “She was not even assigned to me, yet she reached into my situation in a powerful way. I went home and filled out the forms. But I had to tell Mrs. Garces I was sorry, I couldn’t go to college, because my parents did not have the twenty-five-dollar application fee. In my mind, the two things were one and the same—the unaffordable fee, and an unattainable future.
“Mrs. Garces, without saying anything, reached into her purse and wrote a personal check for twenty-five dollars.”
That quiet early investment—call it an initial private offering—paid off in a spectacular and moving way in Debra’s life. Mrs. Garces clearly saw human potential where no one else was looking. And then, knowing it was there, she did something life-changing by opening a door.
“There’s a piece of the story that I didn’t discover until 2001, when I located Mrs. Garces and took her to dinner to tell her what her help had meant. She said she had gone to my father when she heard that he planned to move our family to Puerto Rico for a new business venture. It was the start of my junior year, when leaving would disrupt my college application process. She told my dad that switching schools would hurt my chances of getting in. She was watching out for me in ways I didn’t even know.
“My father moved us anyway, but only for a year, as it turned out. When we came back to New Jersey, I got into Douglass, determined to do whatever it took to finish. I did all kinds of jobs. I worked as a cleaning lady at the Holiday Inn on Route 1, riding from the Douglass campus on my bike. I had to make it, given what had been invested in me.
“It wasn’t until years later, in graduate school, reflecting on how I had ended up at Harvard, that I fully appreciated what a difference that original generosity in 1977 had made in my life. Twenty-five dollars could be an unscalable barrier to kid, yet a gift of that same amount could set something important in motion.
“Since that realization, I’ve wanted to do the same thing for others. The fund that I’ve started at the Community Foundation will support whatever it takes to help low-income students in the Mercer County area see the possibility of going to college and grasp the opportunity, knowing that it won’t be easy but that it is doable.
“I want my fund to convey the same message I give to minority students and young researchers who come up to me after my professional speaking engagements, sometimes in tears, identifying with my story because they, too, were the first in their families to attend college, overcoming all sorts of obstacles.
“My fund will help kids like these, kids like me, perhaps by preparing them with coaching and mentoring, or helping them with their application essays, or maybe talking to their parents to explain the value of education and why it’s important.”
But doesn’t Debra Joy Perez’s success merely prove that she is personally exceptional, a talented high-achiever with a rare set of gifts?
“No, I’m very ordinary. There’s nothing special about me. I was given extraordinary opportunity. What people call educational ‘achievement gaps’ between whites and blacks or Latinos are really opportunity gaps. A lot of the work I do, day to day, is about opening up channels for all the unrealized talents and untapped resources that are out there.
“I look at my life, at how far I’ve come, and I feel blessed by the people who helped get me here.
“I also see how far there is yet to go in my community, how much more there is to do. My fund is fulfilling my dream that one day I would be able to help kids in Trenton go to college, just like someone in Trenton helped me.”