Last week, the James R. Hoffa Memorial Scholarship Fund celebrated twenty years of providing millions of dollars in scholarships to hundreds of Teamster sons and daughters. The Fund has made college dreams possible for so many families throughout the years. The Fund gives loyal, hardworking rank-and-file Teamster Members like Jorge Perez of Local 727 a chance to inspire their children to chase their dreams. Thanks in part to the James R. Hoffa Memorial Scholarship Fund, Jorge’s daughter Penelopi Perez will be the first in her family to attend college. For her father, fifteen year-Teamster Member Jorge Perez, it’s a dream come true for him as well, the culmination of something he’s worked toward for twenty years.
Growing up in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, Jorge got his first lesson in physics and aerodynamics. On city streets charged with gang activity, Perez would run to and from school, slipping through gangways and hopping fences to dodge attempts to recruit him. Gang members would refer to him as one of the “neutrons”, someone who stayed neutral.
“Recruiting for gangs happened at school, and if you didn’t want to turn then it would pretty much be your whole class against you. It’s something I just wasn’t going to do. I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to maintain the status quo of being in a gang and getting arrested, so I ran,” Jorge Perez said.
Tunnel vision and hard work paid off for Perez, after he and his wife Jessica welcomed their first child, Penelopi, into the world eighteen years ago.
“I was still living in Little Village, and when we had her and I’m sure it sounds cliché, but something just clicked, and I said I got to do something with my life. It just gave me a spark,” Jorge said. “I just wanted to get out of the neighborhood and just become an everyday tax-paying citizen of Chicago. That’s all I wanted. Just normality. Because there was not normality where I grew up.”
Perez soon joined Teamsters Local 727, and for nearly fifteen years has been working for Coca-Cola and Pepsi as a merchandiser. Taking notice of her father’s strong work ethic, Penelopi set quite the example for her three younger siblings Priscilla, Preston, and Peyton.
“Seeing her grow up as a child, I just knew she was special. In grammar school she was valedictorian. I knew that she was going to be something special,” Jorge said.
“With his strong work ethic, it’s been shown to me how important it is to have that in order to lead a successful life and to be happy,” Penelopi said.
The Perez family would eventually move to the Clearing neighborhood in Chicago. Penelopi was accepted to the prestigious Whitney Young Magnet High School, and this fall became the first member of the Perez family to attend a University thanks, in part, to the James R. Hoffa Memorial Scholarship Penelopi was awarded in 2019.
“I was tearing up because she’s the first one in my family to attend university,” Jorge said. “I was just happy because it shows my daughter that things happen to people who work hard and are dedicated to something they really believe in.”
“I didn’t realize how generous and organization can be,” Penelopi Perez said. “The Teamsters are just really generous for giving me a chance, not only their member but a family member of a member. Because I didn’t see that from other organizations.”
Penelopi is in the middle of her freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She’s still technically undecided, but is taking lots of courses in Engineering and Environmental sciences. She’s been fascinated by the ocean since she was a little girl.
“I think it started at the Shedd aquarium when I was five years old. I think ever since then, there were problems with the environment and I wanted to help it because I love sea turtles. I think that’s like my biggest thing,” Penelopi said.
Her junior year at Whitney Young was a whirlwind. Penelopi landed a dream-job at the Shedd Aquarium, learning about the animals housed there, their natural habitats, and educating guests on conservation. That job led to a trip to Lisbon, Portugal in 2018 to learn more about aquatic ecosystems and environmental science.
“We’ve visited a lot of marine biologists and different labs, and they took us around labs and showed us the work that they are doing with conservation. Also, we went surfing. It was kind of cool. Kind of scary,” Penelopi said.
Amidst that busy year, Penelopi was alerted to a scholarship by her dad. Jorge read about the James R. Hoffa Memorial Scholarship in the quarterly Teamster magazine, and encouraged his daughter to apply in March 2019. Three months later, Penelopi got the news that she’d been selected as a $10,000 winner.
“I was looking at my email and I opened it and it said I had won a scholarship for $10,000 over the four years. I was with my friend and I was like ‘Oh my god, I just got the scholarship!’ and I went to my parents who were in the backyard, and were like ‘Oh my god this is awesome!’” Penelopi said.
“You hear all sorts of stuff about unions, but here’s my experience. They’re giving my daughter a $10,000 scholarship and she’s not the only one,” Jorge said. “It validates the hard work she’s put in, that the Teamsters are encouraging her to keep going by giving her this scholarship.”
The James R. Hoffa Memorial Scholarship Fund is made possible by the donations of many generous individuals and organizations. In 2020, Teamsters Joint Council 25 donated $25,000 to the fund. Joint Council 25 President Terrence J. Hancock is a big proponent of how the scholarship can change lives.
“Here you have a hard-working father, who worked all his life to provide safety and security for his family, and we’re able to help provide a life-changing opportunity for his high-achieving daughter,” Hancock said. “It says a lot about the International Brotherhood of Teamsters that they dedicate so much time and resources to help working men and women and their families achieve their dreams.”
The James R. Hoffa Memorial Scholarship fund awarded $10,000 scholarships to more than 80 sons and daughters of Teamsters in 2019. The also awarded hundreds more recipients $1,000 scholarships and dozens of Vocational/Training Program scholarships. All in all, more than $1.2 million was awarded.
“It blows my mind that. Being in the union, they can really take care of you. Whether it’s school, or your future, it just makes me happy that I am a union member,” Jorge said. “College is expensive and really puts a dent in the bank account, but with this, it helps.”
“I’m super grateful that the Teamsters were able to give me the scholarship, and it helps out a great deal. I didn’t realize for how much tuition would help out,” Penelopi said.
Looking back on where he was, and where he is now, Jorge couldn’t be more proud of his family and their accomplishments.
“People tell me, you know George you’re lucky. And I’m like no it takes work, it’s not like man, it’s work. There’s work to be done here. And I take pride that work,” Jorge said.
Local 727 Secretary-Treasurer John Coli Jr. said Penelopi and her father deserve every bit of the recognition they’re receiving.
“We are always thrilled to see our members and their families’ hard work being recognized and rewarded. We couldn’t be prouder of Jorge and wish Penelopi the best of luck as she embarks on this new journey,” Coli Jr. said.
If you’re a Teamster Member and would like to know more about the James R. Hoffa Memorial Scholarship Fund, please visit www.jrhmsf.org.