Peréz ’08: From humble beginnings to ‘Boldly Brown’ spokesman

Monday, March 6, 2006

Wilfredo Peréz Jr. ’08 has ambitious dreams. He hopes to improve conditions in Haiti, cure AIDS and become the first Hispanic president of the United States, among other things.

Peréz has already founded his own volunteer program, Operation Happy Birthday, which works in group homes in Providence and western Massachusetts to improve the morale and self-confidence of underprivileged children. Before Peréz could do any of this, however, he had to accomplish a goal no one in his family had yet managed: graduating from high school and going to college.

Now firmly entrenched at Brown, Peréz has become one of the student faces of the “Boldly Brown” capital campaign, traveling to California in December to tell his story.

A nomadic beginningWhen Peréz was growing up in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, he never had any external motivation to improve his position in life. In fact, Peréz never even had a stable home – he and his family moved over 40 times throughout his childhood, and he attended 11 different schools. Peréz spent about half of his childhood homeless, living as a nomad with his mother’s friends.

He cited his mother as his inspiration, saying that if she could manage to raise three children as a young, single woman Рshe had Per̩z when she was 15 Рthen he should have the strength to endure as well.

“I don’t understand the strength my mother has,” Peréz said.

Rather than rely on academic role models to succeed, Peréz had to motivate himself with his own “internal pressure” to do well.

“It was always me who wanted to get those straight A’s,” Peréz said.

And he did get those A’s. Through Upward Bound, a program designed to set underprivileged children on the track to college, Peréz earned a full scholarship to Northfield Mount Hermon School, a prestigious boarding school in Northfield, Mass. There, Peréz had other obstacles to face, including assimilating and competing with students who grew up in wealthy and well-educated families.

To study for the verbal section of the SAT, Peréz followed the advice of his college counselor and simply read the dictionary. Prior to this, Peréz said he didn’t have the same vocabulary as his classmates because of his background.

“People in my family didn’t use words like ‘superfluous,’ ” Peréz said. “My counselor said, ‘You need to try to sound more educated, to make your papers sound more educated.’ “

This strategy worked for Peréz, who went on to graduate at the top of his class. Moreover, he set a record at Northfield Mount Hermon for winning the greatest number of awards granted to a single student, including the prestigious President’s Award and Cambridge Award. He was accepted to Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education with a full scholarship.

Peréz claimed, however, that his success in school was less important than his progress in supporting the causes that matter to him, specifically poverty and homelessness. As a high school junior, he founded Operation Happy Birthday, the organization around which his life would begin to revolve.

Operation Happy BirthdayThe mission of Operation Happy Birthday is to celebrate the birthdays of homeless, abused and financially distressed children. The program also provides free tutoring and mentoring services to children living in group homes. According to its mission statement, OHB hopes “to create a new approach to ending homelessness by reminding those who suffer from homelessness that they have not been forgotten, that their lives are worth celebrating and their struggles are recognized.”

Peréz said one of the worst consequences of being homeless was a drop in confidence. Peréz himself felt – and is sure that other homeless children feel – frustration in his inability to help his family and guilt for his parents’ hardships.

“Nearly all (children in need) question the importance and significance of their lives and often feel the blame for their struggling family,” Peréz wrote on the OHB Web site.

OHB has been hosting around two parties a year in Providence since Peréz brought it to Brown last year; his goal, funds permitting, is to host one per month.

For every birthday party, Peréz must track down a volunteer a cappella group, raise enough money to buy gifts for every child in attendance and find companies to donate everything else – cakes, games, party favors and snacks. Since OHB provides each child with a book as well as a “fun” gift, the presents can be expensive, averaging $50 per child.

Funding is OHB’s greatest hurdle. The group doesn’t have a problem with manpower – over 60 Brown students have volunteered to help out. Nor is there a shortage of children to help.

Peréz has been hard at work raising money to continue and expand OHB. Last year, he organized the first Ballroom Dance-a-thon, with proceeds benefiting OHB. Plans for a similar event this year are already underway. Peréz is also working on a fundraising bake sale to be held on campus near the end of this month.

In addition to fundraising, Peréz has received thousands of dollars in private donations to OHB and is working on a deal with Hasbro in which the company would donate toys to OHB.

Such a donation would remove a huge financial burden from OHB. If it goes through, Peréz will only need to raise money to provide books and transportation for volunteers and children.

Transportation is a much bigger issue for OHB. Now, instead of Brown students visiting them at group homes, children benefiting from the program come to Brown for tutoring and mentoring.

“The homes are not a good environment for learning. They can be very sad places,” Peréz said. He believes that the tutoring process is more effective in the University’s libraries where “studying is actually happening.”

In addition, bringing the children to the University allows them to interact with college students in the two hours they spend with their mentors after tutoring. Peréz hopes that experiencing a little bit of college life will encourage the children to work toward attending college one day.

“We can help them climb out of the holes they’ve been born into,” he said.

‘Boldly Brown’In addition to a rigorous pre-med course load and the responsibility of running his own non-profit organization, Peréz is also a student spokesperson for the “Boldly Brown”-themed Campaign for Academic Enrichment, which aims to raise $1.4 billion for the University.

At the campaign’s November kickoff, Peréz hushed the crowd and received a standing ovation for his speech introducing President Ruth Simmons. He spoke about his background, his economic struggles as a child and the influence Simmons had on his choice to attend Brown. Learning of the obstacles Simmons overcame to reach her current position inspired Peréz to come to Brown so he could meet her.

In his speech, Peréz also spoke at length about OHB, hoping to gain support from influential Brown Corporation members and alums. He realized that his role as spokesperson could be a perfect opportunity to promote OHB.

“I began to do speeches to fundraise for Operation Happy Birthday. They weren’t going to pay me – that’s when I decided to make the most of the speech about OHB,” Peréz said.

Peréz went to California in December to make more speeches on behalf of the campaign. For him, the experience of traveling itself was worth the trip.

“I’d never been outside of New England before, never been on a plane,” he said.

But Peréz reaped further benefits from the campaign. After his speech in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom promised to start a chapter of Operation Happy Birthday in the city.

Due to academic and extracurricular pressures, Peréz has taken a break from the campaign since December. He has not yet decided if he will attend the campaign event in New York later this month or one in Philadelphia later this year.

A busy schedulePeréz runs Operation Happy Birthday, mentors impoverished children, works at the Biomedical Center and the Gate, volunteers at the Crossroads Homeless Clinic and sits on the PLME Senate. He is also a competitive ballroom dancer and spends several hours per week practicing and competing.

To fit it all in, Peréz wakes up every morning at 8 a.m. to study, and he only goes out one night each week.

“I realize that when I start something new, it’ll take away from sleep time,” he said.

He added that this lifestyle is often trying for his nerves, but all he has to do is remember the kids he’s helping to set himself back on track.

“I’ll say to myself, ‘Are you going to go out, or are you going to organize everything so volunteers can get to the homeless shelters?’ ” Peréz said.

If nothing else works, Peréz said he can always call his mother for encouragement.

“I can’t leave talking to her in a bad mood,” he said.

Peréz said that he loves college life: he enjoys meeting people and studying and, most of all, having the resources to help the people who need help.

“The changes we’re making in these kids’ lives, it’s ridiculous, it’s so much more important than studying,” he said.

In the future, Peréz plans to take the lessons he has learned from Brown and OHB and apply them to the world at large. He said the perspective he has gained through volunteering is invaluable, and he hopes it will help him in his future plans for improving the world.

“You begin to realize what’s really important, that there’s a world outside of Brown,” he said. “It might be a sad world, but it can be pretty inspiring too.”