Everyday life for Karina Perez is different depending on the day. From babies, work, activities and family – it’s all far from a routine – it’s what she calls “structured chaos.”
But from an early age she was independent and had a love for giving back to others.
Perez and her four sisters’ parents, Pedro and Rosa Lopez, emigrated from El Salvador in Central America to Los Angeles to raise their family in the mid-1980s. Then, in 1999, they moved to Nebraska, where Rosa’s brother lived, to provide a better life for an elementary school-age Perez and her siblings.
“I still remember coming here. We drove from the Omaha airport in my uncle’s pickup truck,” Perez recalled, noting there wasn’t a whole of infrastructure to see yet like there is in Omaha today. “I remember seeing fields and fields of corn and wheat – that’s all we saw on the way here. It felt like a million hours; it was new. We were just so used to traffic.”
Having parents who weren’t from America and with a limited education presented its challenges for the L.A. native, who often had to do what she could to help her parents.
“Growing up, my dad always helped and pushed education on us,” she said. “There was a time in fourth grade I was so frustrated because I did not know how to do my math homework and he had this heartbroken expression on his face and tears in his eyes because he didn’t know how to help me. That ate me up for a long time because I put that pressure on him. He did not get to finish his education in El Salvador.”
She also got admittedly annoyed at times because she had to teach her father multiplication and division for his job, as he had never learned it.
“As a frustrated teenager, I showed him. He needed it for work,” Perez said. “I didn’t understand the importance of it then. I didn’t know how that bit of time for the weeks to follow would better my father’s working conditions.”
Fast forward to today, those memories are something Perez is appreciative of and, in a way, inspired her to get where she is now. She’s the executive director of Central Hispano, a wife, daughter, sister, mother of three and community advocate. But she said her drive to be successful and help others was directly influenced by her parents and her upbringing.
“Growing up, my dad and mom were always super invested in our education and serving back and giving back to everyone who helped us along the way. They really encouraged that in all of us,” she said of her mom and dad and how they parented their five daughters. “All of my siblings are here and all work in jobs that are giving back to the community in some sense. That’s just what we do.”
Perez was in the second grade when she and her family relocated to Columbus from the West Coast. She and her siblings first went to West Park and later Emerson Elementary School. She then attended Columbus Middle School and graduated from Columbus High in 2010, though acknowledged it was a different town back in the day.
“When I first started, there was only one other Hispanic child in my class,” she said. “I grew up when a lot of people were immigrating to town, so I’ve seen a lot of changes. It has been really neat to see the growth in our community and how welcoming it has become over the years.”
What followed after high school were a couple of different plans. Initially, Perez wanted to get into the medical field and studied nursing at Creighton University her freshman year. She ultimately decided that wasn’t what she wanted to do and transferred to the University of Nebraska Omaha to pursue a degree in communications and Spanish.
“I was also on a pre-dental track. I thought for sure that was where life was going to take me,” she said.
But life changed. She became engaged to her high school sweetheart, Aaron Perez, and the two decided they desired to live in Columbus.
After moving back in 2016, Perez worked in the dental field at Family First Dental for about a year. But Perez’s passion for community service was something that always stuck with her. So, when the executive director job at Central Hispano opened up, she was interested.
Central Hispano is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that envisions justice, unity, human rights and opportunities for all. The organization provides affordable high-quality immigration legal services, informs and educates the community through programming, as well as engages the community in civic activities and advocacy.
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“I told them I was young and inexperienced, but that I was hopeful I could bring new ideas to the table,” recalled Perez, who was pregnant with her first child at that time. “I just loved everything Central Hispano was doing and stood for. The community side of things really drew me in. It felt like home. I knew that was kind of what I wanted to do.”
It worked – she took over as Central Hispano’s executive director on Jan. 31, 2017. From the beginning, she was motivated to help take the organization to the next level. She wasted no time getting to work, even preparing a grant while in the hospital preparing to deliver a baby that February and declining to take any leave. She essentially powered through it all.
“There really has been a huge learning curve,” said Perez, who will celebrate her third anniversary at Central Hispano in January. “But it has been very rewarding – the stories are my favorite - every piece of every story. Whether it’s someone becoming a citizen, getting their GED, a job promotion … we’ve become part of their journeys, their successes, their struggles and tears - everything that’s part of it. It’s very fulfilling to see people get a happy ending.”
Perez, who has six employees, said the job has been a dream come true. She's hoping to continue to grow the organization and make more people aware of what exactly it does.
"If anyone would like to get to know more about Centro and it's work, come down, volunteer or join us for a day of shadowing. Our doors are always open. We do have a special night that we have turned into our annual fundraiser that showcases all of our work and our client stories. Our annual gala this year is celebrating a 'Decade of Change,' honoring the scope of work that has been done by Centro Hispano, over the last 10 years," she said. "We have entertainment, drinks, and we honor those who have impacted our mission ..."
Perez has become a community leader, according to those who work with her regularly.
“I find Karina to be a very professional and positive, yet a very down-to-Earth person,” Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce President Jeanne Schieffer said. “She’s family-oriented, she brings great ideas and she’s very engaged in helping businesses succeed. I’ve been very impressed with her professionalism …”
Columbus resident Ken Curry has worked with Perez on the chamber’s Engaging Diversity Committee and known her for a few years. He said he appreciates her high energy and positive attitude.
“She’s doing great work at Central Hispano,” he said. “The diverse population is a very important part of this community …”
HAPPY AND CONFIDENT
Perez and her husband married in 2016 and now have three children: Zoey, 2; Jade, 1; and Abram, 3 months. Raising kids and spending time with family keeps her quite busy, but she still has managed to volunteer with the Columbus Area United Way and serve on committees for the chamber. She ultimately just wants Columbus to prosper.
“This is home,” she said. “This is the only home I know of.”
She is proud of what she has accomplished in her personal and professional life, adding that fronting Central Hispano has been highly rewarding.
“I get to see families make something of themselves after enduring the process (to citizenship) and putting in the money and time,” she said. “That’s really cool.”
Everything came full circle for Perez last year, as she and her own family went through that very same process she has seen hundreds of others endure.
On Oct. 25, 2018, her father became an American citizen. The very next morning he registered to vote in his first American election - fittingly for his very own daughter, who was running for a seat on the board of education for Columbus Public Schools. Perez didn’t end up winning, but that hasn’t stopped her from looking back on that October day as a truly special moment in her life.
“All in all, everything I had the chance to experience in my life, it really has taught me to appreciate the little moments I sometimes take for granted,” she said. “So it’s really beautiful when I get to see those moments – not just with my family but in the community.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.