Program director at mental health center, with focus on Latino mental health

December 30th, 2010

Gilberto Perez Jr. ’94, Grad. Cert. ’99

Goshen, Indiana

Gilberto Pérez Jr. (right) with U.S. Senator Dick Lugar

As the founding director of Bienvenido, a program for newly arrived Latino immigrants, Gilberto Pérez Jr. tries to offer resources for health and hope, as well as education and livelihoods, for Latinos in Indiana’s schools, churches, juvenile correctional facilities, and communities.

In this quest, Gilberto has grown to be more assertive than he ever dreamed he would be, motivated by a burning desire to help those who are among the most vulnerable in our society.

Gilberto has spoken boldly, for example, to legislative leaders from Indiana. In a recent forum titled, “Mexico in Transition,” hosted by the Indiana University School of Law, Gilberto encouraged U.S. Senator Dick Lugar (Republican-Indiana) to support legislation offering opportunity for immigrants to take English language classes, have a path to citizenship, and address their experiences with trauma and other mental health matters.

The son of Mennonite pastors from South Texas, Gilberto studied at Hesston College in Kansas and did a two-year service assignment with Mennonite Voluntary Service in San Antonio, Texas, where he worked at a health clinic.

Gilberto entered EMU as a social work major in 1992. “There weren’t many Latinos then and not many African American students,” he recalls. After finishing his BS in 1994, Gilberto remained at EMU as an admissions counselor and served on an EMU committee dealing with multiculturalism and diversity.

In 1994 Gilberto married a fellow graduate, Denise Diener, whose family had lived in Puerto Rico since the 1960s.

From 1996 to 2001, Gilberto and Denise lived in Puerto Rico, where he spent a year as a “peace evangelist” for the Mennonite Church USA, completed an MSW from Interamerican University, and earned a graduate certificate in conflict transformation by attending EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute.

In creating Bienvenido from scratch in 2004 and building it into a major source of advocacy for the well-being of Latino immigrants in Indiana and beyond, Gilberto says he often takes heart in recalling John Paul Lederach’s estimation of how long it takes to bring about systemic change – 10 to 20 years.

In the Summer 2010 issue of the Bienvenido newsletter, these recent accomplishments were highlighted:

  • Training 38 community leaders from 13 states and one Canadian province.
  • Launching a virtual (online) learning community centered on improving the practices of mental health workers who relate to immigrants.
  • Offering Bienvenido facilitator training to community-based organizations as a step toward introducing the program into Indiana’s juvenile correctional facilities.
  • Facilitating dialogues in community organizations, schools, hospitals, churches, apartment complexes, and workplaces where many Latinos/Hispanics can be found.
  • Partnering with researchers to measure gains made by Bienvenido participants.

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