Marc Perry is a beacon of hope for at-risk youth, the homeless
During a candlelight vigil on the last night, the kids told their stories. Some were as young as 5. Even the little ones knew more about HIV than most physicians, Perry said. Many were victims of violence or sexual assault.
After the second or third story, then-21-year-old Perry stepped out of the candlelight and cried.
"You think you're a good person, and then you find out how much you don't know," Perry said. "You find out how shallow you really are. I was just kind of living my life. I learned I wanted to work with kids. There's no such thing as a lost cause."
Camp Heartland was a camp for HIV-positive children founded by a group of Milwaukee-area 20-somethings. They started the camp after one HIV-positive boy was denied a trip to a different summer camp, Perry said.
"It made me mad," Perry said when asked why he volunteered at Camp Heartland. "It bothered me. How do you discriminate against a child? How do you deny those kids anything?"
That anger was enough to spark what would become a career of helping at-risk youth through nonprofit agencies in Wisconsin and Missouri. Since 2006, he has worked at Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties. Before that, he worked with children living in low-income, urban neighborhoods in St. Louis.
Locally, Perry is most often associated with homeless advocacy. Perry has been a "dogged" advocate of helping the homeless since he moved back to Rock County, he said.
The community's attitude toward homelessness has become more compassionate, he said.
"Honestly, I think the thing that's made the biggest difference is the count," said Perry, referring to the Homeless Intervention Task Force's semi-annual overnight count of homeless families and individuals.
Count volunteers learn about the problem and become advocates themselves, Perry said.
The homeless aren't the only people who gain from Perry's experience, said Rene Bue, who works as bilingual programming coordinator at Janesville's Hedberg Library. Bue has known Perry for about five years and calls him a kindred spirit.
Perry is a "doer" and is asked to contribute to dozens of projects in the community, Bue said.
Many times, he's the lone African-American man in a crowd. It's a big responsibility to set a good example, Perry has said to Bue. Perry uses his experience to enlighten people about race relations, Bue said.
"Marc uses his own life experiences to help other people understand what goes on in race relations and how people see each other and perceive each other," Bue said.
"How those misunderstandings hurt people and cause rifts between people that don't need to be there."