Jose Rodriguez met George Perez for the first time in the sixth grade. While Perez ate lunch with Rodriguez and his classmates, the students raced up to Perez and asked to carry his lunch tray.

“Mostly it was like an awe,” Rodriguez says of Perez. “It was the first time I had seen a Hispanic in a tie.”

At first, Rodriguez says Perez acted like a “white” man, someone who wouldn’t understand Rodriguez’s life.

But soon, Rodriguez realized Perez knew exactly what was going on.

“I understand him. He was like me,” Rodriguez says.

“When I look at him, I say, ‘That’s what I can be.’ When he looks at me, he says, ‘That was me.’”

“I think of him as successful, someone to look up to.”

Next month, Rodriguez is graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School. He has applied to University of Texas at Arlington and plans to go into law enforcement.

“If it wasn’t for Perez, I’d probably be working at McDonald’s,” Rodriguez says. “He taught us a lot. Mostly he taught us to stay in school. And just be yourself and do what you want to.”

You probably haven’t heard of George Perez. But the kids in our neighborhood know him.

He works behind the scenes, giving neighborhood teenagers from low-income families an opportunity for a better life.

The results of his work can be seen with Woodrow students today, and will continue to be seen in future generations as he helps them break the cycle of poverty and lack of education in their families.

“I don’t think it’s so important for them to in their families.

“I don’t think it’s so important for them to go to college,” Perez says. “But it’s important for them to realize they can do whatever they want to. College is not about academics, it’s about growing up.”

For his dedication to save these neighborhood teenagers from a life of unfulfilled potential, Perez is the recipient of the annual Advocate Award, sponsored by Advocate Community Newspapers and the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce.

The award honors outstanding leaders who are dedicating their lives to improving our neighborhoods based on nominations received from throughout the community.

Life appeared to be stacked against young George Perez.

He was one of eight children raised by a single mother. The family traveled the country as migrant workers until he was 13, when they settled in government housing in Mesquite.

Perez was one of a handful of Hispanics in his high school. His family’s travels made obtaining an education difficult, and he always performed poorly in school.

Despite the odds, Perez was determined to do more with his life than most expected.

“I went to college barely knowing how to read,” Perez says. “Here I was, a very below-average student, but I still made it.”

For the last several years, Perez has instilled that same vision and determination in neighborhood teenagers.

Six years ago, he started mentoring about 120 students from Owen Roberts Elementary School as part of his job at the I Have A Dream Foundation.

At the time, 80 percent of the elementary school’s students didn’t graduate from high school. Perez’s goal was simple: get the students through school.

Over the years, he picked up a few kids and lost quite a few more. But this year, most of the students he works with will graduate from Woodrow and go to college.

“I just saw the big need these kids have,” Perez says. “There’s more to it than math and science. I also think they need high expectations from somebody. Some of these kids say, ‘I’m not capable of going to college,’ when I believe all of them can go to college.”

As a teen, Perez didn’t think college was possible because he performed so poorly in school. But his Sunday school teacher, Glenn Batey, challenged him to go to college

“He had high expectations for me,” Perez says. “He did exactly for me what I’m doing for these kids.”

In addition to Batey, Perez says his mother, Esperanza, also influenced him. She wouldn’t allow her children to use poverty as an excuse for failure. She worked as a migrant worker and then as a maid to support her children and to stay off welfare.

“She would load us all up into a station wagon and go to California and Michigan,” Perez says, “mainly working to make it to the next job.”

When he graduated from high school, Perez attended a Bible college in Missouri and obtained his degree in education. He returned to Dallas and started working for the I Have A Dream Foundation, mentoring neighborhood children. After a year, he went back to school to get his masters in education from the Dallas Theological Seminary.

After receiving his masters, Perez worked for a drug prevention organization, DAYTOP, and tailored his job to work with neighborhood children.

He took them on camping trips, and they played football every Saturday afternoon. They visited museums and talked about problems.

“I don’t have to have them come live with me,” Perez says. “I just act as a good role model.”

“I teach them to believe in themselves. And not to listen to anybody else who says horrible things about you – whether they say it verbally or nonverbally – that Hispanics can’t make it.”

After DAYTOP, Perez began working with Rainbow Days, a child advocacy organization that provides training and seminars for agencies serving children. Perez travels throughout the country training teachers and school administrators to work with at-risk youth.

“It’s an opportunity to teach what I’ve done,” Perez says. “But I miss doing this (working with the Woodrow students) full-time.”

When this class graduates, wife Amy Perez says her husband probably will mentor another class.

“I think he would be lost without it,” Amy says. “I think it’s given him a sense of fulfillment to see them grow up. They’ve been family to him.”

Perez, 29, met Amy eight years ago when he was her Sunday school teacher. He was 21, and she was 17. They dated for two years before marrying. They have a two-year-old daughter named Olivia.

Amy is involved in the mentoring, too, attending many sporting events at Woodrow, planning parties and mainly just being there for support.

“I think these kids have a lot of opportunities and potential,” Amy says. “George is there to remind them they can.”

“He goes above and beyond what most people do. But he doesn’t go above and beyond what people should do. He’s just giving back to his community.”

In addition to working with the kids, Amy says George is also active at Reinhardt Bible Church Fellowship Center.

“Everything he does, he does 110 percent,” Amy says. “His job. Being a husband. Being a father. He doesn’t do anything halfway.”

Last year, Perez realized if his kids were going to attend college, he was going to have to show them how to get there.

So he developed a relationship with Zeb Strong, assistant director for multi-cultural services at University of Texas at Arlington, to find out how to apply for college.

Perez took the students on campus tours and has learned about scholarships and financial aid, how to apply for housing and what students need to get through the bureaucratic maze of applying for college.

For a first-generation college student, the process can be overwhelming, Strong says.

“This is where George comes in,” Strong says. “He’s not taking the best and the brightest. He’s taking the ones everyone has given up on. Nobody’s there to tell them it’s possible. Nobody’s there to tell you the process.”

“If we had more people like George, the state of education could be corrected,” he says. “He’s doing everything to make sure these kids succeed.”

Perez meets with Woodrow students every Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. He carries financial forms and college applications in a white canvas bag with files on each student.

Normally, about eight students attend, sometimes as many as 15. He shows them how to fill out the forms, what financial information they need to obtain from their parents and hands out phone numbers for housing.

As a pilot project, Perez worked with five Woodrow students last year on college applications. Three of them were accepted.

This year, the program has grown to about 40. Most are minorities, come from low-income families and don’t have a stellar academic record. They hear about his weekly meetings from other students or school counselors. Perez says some come only once, while others return every week.

“Some of them just don’t catch the vision,” Perez says. “Their potential is so much more. What I do here on Tuesday mornings is a job that should be done full time.”

He has applied for a grant to fund a full-time position with Woodrow and J.L. Long Middle School to mentor students and get them into college.

“Studies show that kids who have a hope for tomorrow, have a sense of resiliency to propel them forward,” Perez says.

Eduardo Torres, the principal at Woodrow, says Perez is what many of the students at Woodrow need.

“He’s very positive,” Torres says. “He’s a good role model for the kids.”

Perez’s work will benefit the whole community in the long run, Torres says. If the students attend college, they will be more than blue-collar laborers and earn more money to help their families. Plus, attending college increases the possibility for their children and grandchildren to go to college.

“College for some of these kids is not even a possibility for their families,” Torres says.

“It’s like walking on the moon,” Perez says. “Unless you’ve been there, you don’t know what it’s like. It’s very difficult for them to envision this for their kids.”

Perez also meets with the students on Wednesday nights at the East Dallas YMCA. They plan special activities, community service projects and fund-raisers for trips. They receive SAT preparation and play games.

It’s this work and the kids that keep Perez going.

“As far as getting tired, no. It’s so rewarding,” Perez says.

“I feel like I have a bigger purpose in life than to make a lot of money.”

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