Hillsborough County School Board member Karen Perez’s ferocity and drive for mental health advocacy and how it affects families began in her formative years. Perez’s story starts in Brooklyn, New York with two brothers and a sister. Her mother and father split while she was young and she, her siblings and her mother made their way to Tampa in 1979.
When Perez’s mother was a teen, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Unfortunately, due to the dynamics of a Latino household, the issue was never addressed, and it wasn’t until a college psychology class that Perez learned about and understood her mother’s struggles.
Perez connects growing up in a home with a single parent affected by mental illness to her passion of advocating for students. In her experience, no school officials or teachers ever asked her or her siblings how they were, despite their obvious struggles.
The family was lucky to have an incredible woman, Sella Torres, Perez’s aunt. Torres was the perfect role model who instilled a set of ethics and morals in Perez through her constant offerings of love, support and service.
As early as 7 years old, per her aunt’s invitation, Perez was eating side by side with the homeless and sharing thanksgiving meals with anyone who needed a place to sit. Torres taught Perez the importance of being active and giving to the community.
After graduating from King High School in 1981, Perez went to the University of South Florida (USF). She felt blessed to receive the Latino scholarship provided by Sierra Construction to assist with the cost of tuition. Her advisor exposed her to the social work program after discussing Perez’s passion for helping others. Donna Parrino, a great mentor to Perez through the Latino scholarship program, supported her through her journey to becoming a licensed social worker. She graduated USF with a bachelor’s and master’s in social work in 2000 and 2002, respectively. Additionally, Perez became a certified traumatologist through USF in 2001.
Perez beams with pride over the accomplishments of her children. Her eldest, a son, is an apprentice in the electricians union in Hillsborough County; her oldest daughter is a financial analyst on Wall Street; and her youngest daughter is a software engineer with a master’s degree. All eight of Perez’s grandchildren attend Hillsborough County schools as well.
Perez’s entire family is invested in the community, even her pets. Her two dogs, Riley and Baxter, are certified therapy dogs, and they frequent the hospitals Perez works at as well as her private practice. Additionally, the Perez family donates $3,000 in scholarships each year to students going into the mental health field.