About Karen Perez
School Board member Karen Perez’ ferocity and drive for mental health advocacy and how it affects families began in her formative years. Perez’ story starts in Brooklyn, New York with two brothers and a sister. Her mother and father split while she was young and she, her siblings and mother made their way to Tampa in 1979.
When Perez’ mother was a teen, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Unfortunately, due to the dynamics of a Latino household, the issue was never addressed and it wasn’t until a college psychology class that Perez learned about and understood her mother’s struggles. Perez connects growing up in a home with a single parent affected by mental illness to her passion of advocating for students. In her experience, no school officials or teachers ever asked her or her siblings how they were, despite their obvious struggles.
The family was lucky to have an incredible woman, Sella Torres, Perez’ aunt. Torres was the perfect role model who instilled a set of ethics and morals in Perez through her constant offerings of love, support and service. As young as seven years old, per her aunt’s invitation, Perez was eating side by side with the homeless and sharing thanksgiving meals with anyone who needed a place to sit. Torres taught Perez the importance of being active and giving to the community.
After graduating from King High School in 1981, Perez went to the University of South Florida (USF). She felt blessed to receive the Latino scholarship provided by Sierra Construction to assist with the cost of tuition. Her advisor exposed her to the social work program after discussing Perez’ passion for helping others. Donna Parrino, a great mentor to Perez through the Latino scholarship program, supported her through her journey to becoming a licensed social worker. She graduated USF with a bachelor’s and master’s in social work in 2000 and 2002, respectively. Additionally, Perez became a certified traumatologist through USF in 2001.
While studying, Perez’ home life was incredibly difficult. She and her three young children escaped a domestic violence situation. As a newly single parent, she worked for a better life for her, her children and the future they would have together.
Her time at USF led her to Memorial Hospital as a hospital clinical therapist and social worker. She also worked as a family reunification specialist with Northside Mental Health Access and care team coordinator with Hillsborough Kids, Inc. Her expertise in traumatology brought her to the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in 2008 where she has worked closely with geriatric patients and female veterans. In 2010, Perez created her own small private practice, Embracing Changes for Wellness, LLC, of which she is president and CEO. She sees patients from kindergarten age to over 100 years old.
Although her professional career was flourishing, she did not neglect instilling the life lessons into her children taught to her by Tia Sella. Her three children were brought up and graduated from Hillsborough County schools, and one even graduated from her Alma Mater, USF. Perez beams with pride over the accomplishments of her children. Her eldest, a son, is an apprentice in the electricians union in Hillsborough County, her oldest daughter is a financial analyst on Wall Street and her youngest daughter is a software engineer with a master’s degree. All eight of Perez’ grandchildren attend Hillsborough County schools as well.
Perez’ entire family is invested in the community, even her pets. Her two dogs, Riley and Baxter, are certified therapy dogs and they frequent the hospitals Perez works as well as her private practice. Additionally, the Perez family donates $3,000 in scholarships a year to students going into the mental health field.
She won her first election for the county-wide position of Hillsborough County Public Schools Board of Education, District 6 on November 6, 2018, with 234,122 votes. Her vast experience and mental health expertise are the fires that ignite her passion for mental health advocacy in Hillsborough County schools. With the additional burden of COVID-19 and its effect on families and children throughout the county, she has been a fighting force in securing funding for the availability of mental health services, community resources, counseling and psychologists.
Karen Perez is a voice for our families who depend on our public school system, especially those affected by mental health issues. She also brings a perspective needed in this community as a Latina. Her experience as a single parent, survivor of domestic abuse and her difficult childhood make her a strong School Board member and help her better understand those who face similar challenges.