From rough Chicago neighborhood to Des Moines, the Rev. Al Perez helps kids and families find resources to succeed
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This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2020 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
Al Perez found himself adrift when he was 19.
He graduated from high school — which was more education than his father and grandfather had finished — but the Chicago native became listless at Joliet Junior College.
His mother, Kathleen Perez, suggested he join a recreational basketball team in Bolingbrook, Illinois, the Chicago suburb his family moved to to escape the dangers of the Humboldt Park neighborhood in the 1970s.
There was a catch: He had to attend church services at Living Water Assembly of God.
Perez figured church services were a fair trade for hoops.
“And that’s where my life changed,” said Perez, now an ordained Assembly of God pastor and community site coordinator for Des Moines schools. “I felt God. I sensed God had a purpose for me, to go into ministry and to help other people.”
Perez graduated from junior college and went on to graduate from Christian Life College in Mount Prospect, Illinois, becoming the first person in his family to graduate from a four-year college.
He became a minister, eventually moving to Iowa where he seeded churches for Assembly of God.
Perez became a chaplain for Des Moines police in 2014 and, in 2017, started working at Des Moines schools, helping struggling families connect with community resources.
In June, Perez is helping to bring Convoy of Hope to Des Moines, a massive volunteer and community service event that connects people with services, including health screenings and job opportunities.
For his ongoing effort to help people lead better lives, Perez is one of the Des Moines Register's 15 People to Watch in 2020.
Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, where Perez grew up, was still healing in the '70s from the 1966 Division Street Riots, a violent three-day clash between police and the area’s Puerto Rican residents that left 16 people injured and 49 buildings severely damaged.
Gang violence and poverty were commonplace.
“My parents warned me never to leave our city block,” Perez said. “We could play on our block, but it was almost like the alley was alien territory. You just couldn’t cross over.”
His father, Alfonzo Perez, worked at a print and dye company. He started with a mop and a broom but learned the trade and eventually worked his way up to foreman and owning his own business.
The family moved from hardscrabble Humboldt Park to Woodridge, Illinois — about 40 miles from Chicago — and eventually to Bolingbrook.
But Perez was also a third-generation Mexican-American in a school with mostly whites.
“It was culture shock,” Perez said. “Everything was different. You could go fishing and ride a bike around the whole apartment complex. Even the music kids listened to was different.”
Perez managed the transition with the help of teachers who took an interest in him. Sometimes it was a simple compliment. Other days, it was a nudge for him to try harder on a subject.
The power of education backed by a strong family in his formative years fuels his work at Des Moines schools.
As a community site coordinator for King Elementary School, Perez helps families connect with resources they need to keep their children progressing and excelling in schools.
He runs the school’s food pantry. He helps to connect people who have legal issues with the Drake University Legal Clinic and other options. Sometimes, he just listens.
“The value he brings to our school is an understanding of what diversity truly means,” said Kisha Barnes, King’s principal. “He understands racial identity and socioeconomic status. He helps people navigate to the resources that can help children and families from many different backgrounds toward successful outcomes in the classroom and beyond.”
Perez’s ear and calming presence resonate across many areas of the community. He served as police chaplain in 2016, one of the most brutal years in the department’s history.
In March of that year, two officers and a suspect were killed by a drunk driver going the wrong way on Interstate 80.
In November of 2016, a Des Moines officer and an Urbandale officer were gunned down by a lone shooter in separate early morning ambushes.
Perez was part of the support team that helped Des Moines officers get through the tragedies.
“There was a time that I thought Al must never sleep,” DMPD Chief Dana Wingert said. “He was at every shift change. He was at every memorial. He was just there all the time.”
15 People to Watch in 2020: These Iowans are working for good in the new year
“Al cares,” Wingert said. “That’s the first thing you learn about him.”
That caring led Perez to help coordinate the Convoy of Hope event set for June 27 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
Convoy of Hope is a charitable foundation started by the family of Harold Donaldson, a truck driver who was killed by a drunk driver in 1969.
Since 1999, the organization has helped more than 115 million people connect with services that range from haircuts and family portraits to job fairs and counseling services.
Perez is passionate about Convoy of Hope because it represents an opportunity for Des Moines to see goodness and charity in action and for people to volunteer to help others.
Because Perez knows the difference in people’s lives often comes from the smallest gestures.
Where would Perez be if his mom hadn’t tricked him into embracing Christianity by suggesting he play on a church basketball team?
What if his father hadn’t worked so hard to afford to move to a better neighborhood?
What if his teachers hadn’t offered those encouraging words and taken an interest in his success?
Al Perez’s mission is to take as many of those “what ifs” away for the children and families who need help.
“Sometimes the only stability children are going to have is the eight hours they are at school,” Perez said. “So we do everything we can to make sure as many of their needs are met during that time, and keep trying to help them be their best selves.”
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2020" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Des Moines Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 5.
Get to know Al Perez
- BORN: Chicago
- AGE: 53
- RESIDENCE: Ankeny
- EDUCATION: Joliet Junior College, Joliet, Illinois, associate's degree in business administration and finance, 1988; Christian Life College, Mount Prospect, Illinois, 1992, bachelor's degree in pastoral studies and counseling
- OCCUPATION: Community site coordinator for Des Moines schools
- CLAIM TO FAME: Perez helps children and families connect to community resources to meet needs; he is helping to bring Convoy of Hope, a massive charity and humanitarian outreach event, to Des Moines in June.
- FAMILY: Wife, Jody Perez; children, Aiden, 13, and Anna, 10
- WEBSITE: www.convoyofhope.org/outreach/des-moines/
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