It takes guts to venture into uncharted territory. It takes a compassionate heart to reach out to the developmentally and intellectually disabled. Leslie Perez has courage and heart. Rather than ignore or shun the disabled students at her school, she decided to engage them as a mentor.
"I wanted to be that person, to be bold enough to help these students that are really different from us," Leslie said.
A senior and a trailblazer at Miami Springs High School, Leslie saw how isolated the disabled kids were from the rest of the student body. They would always sit in a group in the cafeteria, for instance, and Leslie noticed virtually no interaction between them and the other students.
"So I decided, like why not involve them in more activities, involve them in pep rallies, plays, do something different so they could get out of their comfort zone and go into something they haven't done before, you know, have fun," said Leslie.
That's how Project Unify, Leslie's club, was born. She recruited friends, and now they work their special needs classmates, teaching them games and sports, integrating them into the student body as much as possible, and making them feel like everyone else.
"I learned that I have more patience than I thought I would have," Leslie said, explaining that teaching the intellectually disabled kids a choreographed dance for a pep rally took much more time than she had anticipated.
"Leslie is truly an inspiration, she brings smiles to my students with intellectual disabilities to their faces every day and her energy is incredible," exclaimed Clo Creevay, the special needs teacher. "They're getting self-esteem, socialization skills just by interacting, and it's a win-win situation for everybody."
Seniors graduate but underclassmen will keep Leslie's Project Upstart vision in focus.
"Just to set an example for the other people, once I leave I want other people to go in there and do the same that I did or we did together and it's to make their lives way better," said Alex Diez, a junior and an original member of Project Upstart.
The kids call him Coach Alex because he taught them to play soccer.
It's hard to say who benefits more from Project Upstart, the mentors or the mentees. It's safe to say it's a two-way street.
"It's rewarding for me because when they're happy, I'll be happy, if they're smiling I'll be smiling," Leslie said.
Leslie is ranked third in her class. She's heading to the University of Florida next year, leaving behind a legacy of engagement, kindness, and smiles at Miami Springs High.