From the Heart
There’s something about Amalia Perez. She has the ability to connect with strangers and have a conversation as if they are lifelong friends. There is a warmth inside that doesn’t so much burn as it does radiate. Perez’s good nature is matched by her pragmatism and sense of responsibility.
The argument could be made that Perez’s defining character traits are a byproduct of her culture and her status as the oldest of three children. Perez is Chamorro and family is an important part of Chamorro life. “I feel my culture and upbringing allow me to help create a sense of family for others in all aspects of my life,” she said.
Perez is a family-support specialist at the Multicultural Child & Family Hope Center in Tacoma’s Central neighborhood. “Early learning and childcare are the base of what we do, but we also offer wrapround services for families that are CPS-involved, that are in recovery, or who have some kind of substance abuse, mental health or domestic violence issue they’re dealing with,” she said, referring to Washington's Child Protective Services agency.
Perez started working at the Multicultural Center back in 2014, not long after she graduated from UW Tacoma. Perez went to college with the intention of becoming a nurse. Originally accepted to the UW in Seattle, she started taking pre-requisites, but ran into challenges. “I barely passed the first quarter of chemistry and that made me revaluate what I wanted to do,” she said.
Born at what was then Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord) Perez grew up in Spanaway and Lakewood. Her dad served in the U.S. Army for a number of years. Her mother was an active member of the community. “She volunteered with the PTA [Parent Teacher Association] and at our church,” said Perez. “She also worked different jobs including as a dental assistant and newspaper carrier. Many of the times she was working, my siblings and I would accompany her.”
The Amalia Perez of today was also shaped by something else. “My mom died when I was thirteen,” she said. “My mom’s passing grounded me, I became a parentified child and took on more of the caregiving role for my younger siblings.”
Perez, her father, brother and sister moved in with her father’s parents. “They were great, they put a roof over our heads, and supported us throughout our time in school,” said Perez.
The then-teenager felt out of place. “I was trying to navigate life without the most influential person in my life,” she said. Perez needed an escape. “I took every Honors/AP class I could and did every sport I could and got involved in any after school programming,” she said. “Looking back, I think that experience got me out of my shell.”
When it came time to start applying for college, Perez had only one school in mind (although she did apply to three). My mom always talked about UW,” she said. “I don’t know why she did, whether purple was her favorite color or it’s where she wanted to go, but it didn’t matter. I knew that’s where she wanted me to go.”
Perez applied. “The day I got the acceptance letter was the five-year anniversary of the day she died,” she said. The years after her mother died were difficult for Perez. She’d lost a parent and while nothing could replace her mother, Perez did find support through various mother-figures: aunties, grandmothers and teachers. “My godparents were really helpful in getting me through some of the darker, more depressed times of senior year,” she said. “They helped me to see the positive.”
Working From the Heart
Perez’s decision to switch from the UW in Seattle to UW Tacoma feels like a given, considering her connection to campus. She first came to UW Tacoma in middle school as part of the Math Science Leadership (MSL) program. MSL is a three-week summer program that takes place on campus. The program serves youth in grades 8 to 11 that are historically underrepresented in STEM. “I’m so glad I did MSL, it was a really cool first experience with college,” said Perez.
Besides MSL, Perez also worked on campus before she was a student. “I took a summer job with the College Success Foundation and that allowed me to meet faculty and some of the students,” she said. “One of the students I met was in the social welfare program. Her values and story aligned with mine."
Perez ultimately decided to make the move to UW Tacoma at the end of her first year in college. “I took an intro social work class my first quarter here and I fell in love with the profession,” she said. “The professor for the class told us, ‘You go into this, you’re not going to make a lot of money, but if you have a passion to serve then you can have a rewarding career.’ ”
Perez went on to major in social welfare. She excelled in the classroom. “I took a statistics class here and the professor explained concepts really well,” said Perez. “I never thought I could get an ‘A’ in statistics but I was just so absorbed by the material.”
In addition to taking classes, Perez also got involved on campus with clubs and organizations. During her junior year she took a job on campus working to recruit and support college students to serve as mentors to high school students. “I wanted to use my experience and my insights to help others and provide advice that would make things easier for them,” she said.
To say that Perez made the most of her time at UW Tacoma is an understatement. A group project she worked on for a class received recognition at a social work conference. Perez and her classmates secured funding to attend the conference in Louisville, Ky., where they were honored with an award.
Near the end of her senior year Perez did a study-abroad in Ecuador. Not long after her return from Ecuador, Perez got a job offer at Multicultural Child & Family Hope Center. Perez had interned with the Hope Center and found the organization’s philosophy matched hers. “The way I was taught about social work matched the work that was going on at the Multicultural Center,” she said. “What I learned in the classroom transferred so well to here, it was very realistic and focused on working from the heart.”
Perez does a little bit of everything in her role at the Multicultural Center. She connects families to resources whether that’s childcare or everyday necessities. Perez also leads courses and workshops. “I work with parents and providers on managing stress or misbehaviors,” she said. “This realm of prevention and setting our birth-to-five-year-old kiddos up for success, socially, emotionally and physically is where my heart is.”
There’s something about Amalia Perez. Maybe the something is this: Perez understands that we have a responsibility to each other. “I don’t ever go home and lay my head down and feel like I could’ve done more,” she said. “I’m not a superhero but seeing the stress come off a person’s face when I help them with something is a lot because you know you did something.”