According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American changes jobs about once every four years. So while most people would likely have held down a minimum of 10 to 11 jobs over the course of 50 years, Mary A. Perry has defied those odds in ways most of us cannot imagine. This October she will have worked for the Head Start program for 51 years – over five decades of work for one employer, in one town. Her jobs, however, have varied.
Artesia’s Head Start program opened in 1965 and one of the first parent volunteers was none other than Mrs. Perry. At the time, the newly opened Head Start program was eight weeks long and took place over the course of the summer. Volunteering with the program opened her eyes to the exciting activities and learning opportunities the children were exposed to, so much so, that she decided to apply for a job as a teaching assistant. From assistant she eventually segued into her own classroom as a teacher and even worked as a home visitor during a pilot program. There is a noticeable twinkle in her eyes when she talks about education, children, and learning. She lights up when she recalls stories about families she has helped and children who have impacted her life. It’s a love many would be hard-pressed to find, especially in the workforce.
Eventually, Mrs. Perry’s passion for her work and her strong commitment to the welfare of young children and their families earned her the title of Head Start Director. As director she is responsible for the services provided to 878 children, at seven different Head Start Centers, with 46 classrooms located in Artesia, Carlsbad, Dexter, Hagerman, Loving, and Roswell. In addition to the students, she is also responsible for the oversight of 171 employees.
Over the span of fifty years, Mrs. Perry has worn countless hats; hats that have not necessarily been in line with her actual job titles. She recalls one ill-fated week during which the entire food staff got sick at the same time, but she wasn’t about to let her students go hungry. “We had to prepare meals and serve them — I’ve never made so much cornbread before in my life,” she laughed.
“I’ve painted walls, scrubbed toilets, cleaned bathrooms…you name it. If something needs to be done, especially when I was a little younger, I’d just jump in and do it,” she added.
She’ll never forget a phone call she received many years back from her boss, Susan, who said she needed to ask a favor of her. “I said, ‘Ok..’ and then she said they needed someone to run the program in Santa Fe because they lost their grantee,” she recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘That’s a pretty big favor!’” Susan needed Mrs. Perry to run the program in Santa Fe until they could find a replacement, so that’s what she did. “Jan Walker (her assistant at the time) and I made so many trips back and forth to Santa Fe…We lived out of hotels back then. And you know how it is in northern New Mexico — we got in so many snow storms you wouldn’t believe it!” But once again, Mrs. Perry jumped in and did what needed to be done in order to make sure the children and their families, even families hundreds of miles away, had the resources they needed to succeed in the Head Start Program.
It’s not just a paycheck that keeps her coming back year after year, long after many people would have since retired. No, the thing that keeps Mrs. Perry coming back to work as the director of the Head Start program boils down to one word. “It truly is my passion,” she shared. “This is what I am supposed to be doing; I enjoy it. I enjoy seeing the children and I love working with children and working with the families. When I would go into the home and work with the parents and the children, I enjoyed it so much because you develop a relationship with the families and you get to know them. I love seeing the difference you can make in their lives.”
As she reflects back on the past fifty years, I found it a bit surprising to learn that she never intended to last as long or advance as far as she has. Instead, she said she never thought of being more than a teacher in a classroom. “I never had that desire,” she said of becoming a director. In fact, she didn’t even plan on applying for the director’s job and only did so after her bosses and the board of directors all asked her to. It’s a testament, some would say, to her vast knowledge of, and her steadfast dedication and unwavering commitment to the children and families the program serves. And it all points to her ultimate goal in life; to make the world around her a better place to live in and to be the best person she can be with the talents and skills God has given her. She has spent decades working toward her goal. “I grew up in head start,” she said. “I have done and experienced so much than I wouldn’t have otherwise because of Head Start. I’ve traveled to places I would have never been, met people I would have never met had I not worked here. I’m so thankful for all of it.”
When the subject of retirement seeps into conversations, as it often does, she says, her answers lose a bit of clarity; not because she doesn’t think about it, but because she just hasn’t landed on a stopping point yet. “I keep thinking I’m getting tired but I don’t know if I’m ready to retire yet,” she admitted. “I’m just not sure yet.”
There’s a motto she clings to and even reciting it brings her to tears. It’s her reminder to seek counsel from God in the countless decisions she makes as Director of the Head Start Program: “Lord, grand me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Mrs. Perry resides in Artesia with her husband, R.C. Perry. They have two daughters and two sons. She is a member of Bethel Baptist Church and secretary of the Finance Committee, and she is also a member of the National Head Start Association, New Mexico Head Start Association, and the Region VI Head Start Association.