Elias Perea is passionate about working with students in his Dorchester neighborhood. Perea is a college readiness adviser with College Bound Dorchester, a non-profit aimed at encouraging current and former gang members to go back to school. His role is similar to that of a social worker, offering emotional support and guidance along the way.
One of the reasons Perea was drawn to this job is from personal experience. In the 7th grade, he was expelled from the Boston public school district for bringing a knife and fireworks to class.
"Being in the neighborhoods you had to prove yourself," he recalls. "I wanted to be somebody, I just chose it the wrong way."
At the time, Perea's parents were struggling with drug addiction and he says there was some abuse at home. His neighborhood near the Academy Homes in Roxbury had two rival gangs, which he says at times felt more like "a war zone."
Perea's inspiration in his work today also comes from the very powerful relationships he formed during those trying times, particularly the friendship with one of his caseworkers, Makeeba McCreary.
Perea met McCreary at COMPASS, a private high school in Dorchester for students with emotional and behavioral issues. McCreary remembers being struck by Perea's intelligence and compassion. And he always had a way of making her laugh.
"I knew how strong Elias was and I knew how badly he wanted to be a part of a different world," says McCreary, who is now chief of learning and community engagement at the Museum of Fine Arts. "And I don't think I ever stopped believing that."
McCreary spent a lot of time with Perea in those days. As part of her job, she picked him up for school in the morning, checked in with him on campus and drove him home at the end of the day.
Perea says he was hesitant to open up to McCreary at first, but he remembers she was persistent. Perea recalls that some days, McCreary would go inside his house and drag him out of bed to make sure he made it to class. She took him to his first Celtics game and found summer jobs for him. Perea says her dedication made a difference.
"She was a big sister, and a mother, auntie, and everything at the same time," he remembers. "I could see that she was trying to nurture me and give me that type of trust to show me, like, you could do this differently."
McCreary says, for her, the key was just showing up. Every time. But she admits finding balance in her job as a caseworker at the school was always tough.
"With kids who had absolutely no reason to trust you and more evidence that the world was not going to take care of them ... how far do you push that line in terms of relationship?" she says. "They deserve to be in a space where they're safe and where the adult [in their lives] can meet all of their needs. And frankly, you can't."
Perea's life has taken several turns since his years at COMPASS. He served two prison sentences, one for three years and one for five. He struggled to find work after being released until joining College Bound Dorchester four years ago. But he says it's those experiences that also makes him good at his job. He knows the daily struggle his students are facing and how tempting it can be to turn back to a life on the streets.
"I've seen it. I've been through it. And I've lived it," he says.
Perea is grateful for the time and energy that McCreary invested in him as a teenager. And that experience shapes the way he approaches his work. He knows, first hand, just how much time and energy it can take to effectively serve students who have been through trauma.
Today, McCreary has moved away from direct service social work. But she says working with students like Perea and seeing them find success in life has left still fills her with pride. It's also taught her some important lessons too.
"It's a really good reminder that it's important to take care of each other in this world," she says. "It's important to create spaces where even just for a moment somebody has a sense of safety."
This segment aired on February 24, 2020.