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Mi Futuro’s Musetta Perezarce creates prescription for success

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

Musetta Perezarce remembers the insecurity and powerlessness she felt growing up in a family often fraught with chaos and frequently unmoored.

She already had moved several times when she dropped out of high school in her junior year to take a job in a restaurant. Her mother was dying of cancer, and Perezarce knew she had no one to rely on but herself.

While her family of origin was not completely without love, there were many problems that often are byproducts of poverty: drug and alcohol addiction, depression, mental illness, occasional violence, the anxiety that comes with insecurity and little reassurance from adults around her with too little time for a little girl and her older sister.

Perezarce knew if she was going to have any shot at a better life, she needed to go to college. She finished high school and with support from mentors and other caring adults who spurred her on, she attended Santa Rosa Junior College and was accepted into its nursing program. By 23, she had a job with Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa and was on her way to claiming a future she controlled.

Still, the instability of Perezarce’s early life is embedded in her. It informs her work as a nurse and inspires her to help young people find a better life through rewarding, well-paid careers in the medical field.

In 2015, Perezarce cofounded Mi Futuro with Wanda Tapia, coordinator for Latino Health Forum, which serves Sonoma County. They built on a successful pizza-and-information night two years earlier that drew about 50 youth interested in medical careers.

Program instructor and registered nurse Musetta Perezarce, right, embraces Rancho Cotate High School student Meghan O'Leary after she and other high school students graduated from the Health Careers Academy at Kaiser Hospital in Santa Rosa, California on Thursday, April 28, 2016. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat file)
Program instructor and registered nurse Musetta Perezarce, right, embraces Rancho Cotate High School student Meghan O'Leary after she and other high school students graduated from the Health Careers Academy at Kaiser Hospital in Santa Rosa, California on Thursday, April 28, 2016. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat file)

Mi Futuro is a health-care career path program that introduces high school and college students, most from underserved communities, to a range of jobs they may not have known existed, from phlebotomists to surgical technicians, radiology techs to dental assistants. At the same time, Mi Futuro helps fill a need in the medical community for a trained workforce that better represents the diversity of its patients.

In the last five years, 2,470 students have attended Mi Futuro’s annual symposiums, virtual workshops and classroom talks. Participants, 70% from ethnic groups who are underrepresented in the health-care field, meet working medical and mental health professionals who share their own stories and explain their jobs and what it takes to get there. There are skills demonstrations and tools of the trade to touch and try out.

Importantly, Mi Futuro also offers support and information for stressed young people struggling with their mental and emotional health. The organization teaches HeartMath, a method to help people self-regulate their emotions and behaviors to reduce stress, increase resilience and tap into their insights to make good choices.

Make more from less

At the center of it all is Perezarce, a compassionate mentor who frequently reminds students who may be frustrated, discouraged or overwhelmed by challenging circumstances to try to make things better with “the less” life has dealt them.

She tells them: “All the good and right things you’ve done with the less given you will rise like a bold and shining sun. And your sun will rise with healing in its wings.”

Perezarce embodies the truth of that statement. The high school dropout later earned an MBA from Mills College, where she specialized in nonprofit management. She’s currently a patient care coordinator and nurse caseworker at Kaiser Santa Rosa, collaborating with interdisciplinary teams for coordinated patient care.

“She is my hero, and (for) many people in this county. She fights tirelessly and deserves recognition. She is the face of love.” an admirer who nominated Musetta Perezarce for the award but asked to remain anonymous

She also chairs Mi Futuro, while serving as conservator for her older stepbrother with developmental disabilities and sometimes stepping in as an advocate for her sister, who has severe mental health problems.

Musetta Perezarce and her developmentally disabled stepbrother, Brian Adamson, put a plant in the garden in Healdsburg on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Perezarce is a patient care coordinator at Kaiser Permanente who created the nonprofit Mi Futuro. She also is a conservator for Adamson. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Musetta Perezarce and her developmentally disabled stepbrother, Brian Adamson, put a plant in the garden in Healdsburg on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Perezarce is a patient care coordinator at Kaiser Permanente who created the nonprofit Mi Futuro. She also is a conservator for Adamson. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

For her innovation and energy in uplifting youth by opening a path to the future, Perezarce has been awarded the North Bay Spirit Award. A project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award shines a light on outstanding volunteers who go above and beyond for their communities. Many, like Perezarce, saw a pressing need in the community and found an innovative way to fill it.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit Award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate, go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

“She is my hero, and (for) many people in this county. She fights tirelessly and deserves recognition. She is the face of love,” said an admirer who nominated Perezarce for the award but asked to remain anonymous.

Jen Titus, a health and science teacher at Casa Grande High in Petaluma, has taken many students to Mi Futuro symposiums and has brought medical professionals into her classrooms with the organization. She called Perezarce “a firecracker.”

“She sets her mind to something and she figures out how to do it, no matter how busy she is, and she always is. She always has time to help,” Titus said. “She’s always willing to step in to help out and if not, she knows somebody who can.”

Igniting, reigniting passion

The 42-year-old nurse taps into her vast network of friends, associates and colleagues to mount the annual one-day symposium, which each year brings more than 400 students and professionals together in a fun, enlightening atmosphere. Perezarce also has engaged the financial support of the county’s medical establishments, including Kaiser, Sutter Health, St. Joseph Health, Petaluma Health Care District, Sonoma County and Latino Service Providers.

During the pandemic, Mi Futuro events moved online, but the organization is still based at Sonoma State University, where Perezarce received her nursing degree after completing SRJC’s program.

Kaiser pediatrician Dr. James Pyskaty participated in four in-person symposiums and mentored a young woman from a low-income family who was a first-generation college student and now is a graduate student on her way to becoming a nurse practitioner.

Also with Mi Futuro, he had students practice resuscitating a newborn baby in distress using a mannequin, providing a bit of fun and hands-on experience.

“There was a lot of opportunity for comedy in that age group,” he said. “I assisted them and immersed them on the spot without them having skills in complex medical resuscitation. It was about 25% comedy and 75% real medicine.”

Perezarce also aims to reignite the passions of her fellow health-care workers whose demanding jobs might distance them from the mission-based enthusiasm that inspired them to get into the field. Pyskaty said it’s a testament to her gift for connecting people that Perezarce has assembled so many medical professionals under a single mission at once, a rarity outside their own workplace.

Making the experience fun is part of the winning formula to keeping students engaged and excited.

Daisy Cardenas, 27 and working on her master’s degree in counseling psychology, said many students, like herself, face a host of barriers to higher education. Those could be family demands, insufficient financial resources or a lack of awareness about what’s available, barriers she faced as the daughter of immigrant parents who couldn’t access higher education.

Through Mi Futuro, she said, “There are so many different organizations or agencies who are sharing resources about scholarships, financial aid and things that can support these students,” said Cardenas, who serves on Mi Futuro’s planning committee. “It’s very rewarding and very important to allow students that may come from underrespresented communities to attend events like Mi Futuro to see that there are health care professionals out there in the community who are like them and share similar experiences. It creates motivation and inspiration.”

Personal experience

Perhaps one reason Perezarce is so passionate about her mission is that the challenges so many of her students face are all too familiar.

During her earliest years, she lived in an overcrowded house in Monterey with several uncles, a grandmother and two cousins, plus her sister and mother, who struggled with no support from the girls’ father.

There was open drug and alcohol abuse in the house. After a traumatic confrontation in which the 8-year-old stood up to a drunk and physically abusive uncle, her mother moved with the girls to a friend’s house in San Jose to get on her feet. That family also was dysfunctional, adding to the instability and trauma for Perezarce and her sister.

Perezarce’s mother met a new boyfriend at the community college where she was studying computer programming. They married and moved up to Santa Rosa with the two girls and his disabled son. They bought a nice house in Wikiup, but the two adults were often gone, commuting to jobs in the East Bay.

Musetta was left with little supervision or support. At the same time, she stepped in to help her sister, who became suicidal and in her early 20s was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

When their mother died, Perezarce’s stepfather left, leaving her to supervise her disabled stepbrother Brian, who has the intellectual abilities of a 5-year-old. It was a lot to heap on the shoulders of a teen who just lost her mother.

She recently became Brian’s legal conservator after discovering he had been abused in the group home where he was living. With much effort, she convinced the landlords of the small Healdsburg cottage she rented on a vineyard to get the place approved for subsidized Section 8 housing. At a time when caregivers were in short supply, she assembled a team of helpers, including a 16-year-old boy who represents the young people Mi Futuro can support, she said.

Teens as young as 14 can become certified in-home aides and be paid $15 an hour. They also can become nursing aides or EMTs, well-paid jobs that are a leg up to something else, she said.

But they also have something vital to offer, she said. There is a need for qualified workers in so many areas of health care and especially for those who understand the cultures of Sonoma’s various ethnic communities.

“For me, what Mi Futuro has always been about is making known more clearly the social inequalities of students who don’t have enough and are not likely to have enough throughout their whole life unless they really choose something different.” Musetta Perezarce

For instance, there can be a stigma in the Latino community against seeking help, Cardenas said. Only 20% of Sonoma County’s medical workers are Latino.

“Bringing more bilingual and bicultural folks into the field can help lessen the stigma and allow for the community to get the help they need,” Cardenas said.

Statistics link poverty to health, longevity and quality of life. Children from underserved families are more likely to have adverse childhood experiences that increase their risk of lifelong health conditions, depression and shorter life expectancies, Perezarce said.

Perezarce points to the “Portrait of Sonoma,” a 2021 look at the health and well being of the county done as a collaborative effort by the Sonoma County Health and Human Services Departments, Community Foundation Sonoma County, the Social Science Research Council and other funders. It found among other things that people living in their highest scoring neighborhood of East Bennett Valley had a life expectancy of 8.7 years compared to people living in the lowest scoring Roseland neighborhoods.

Perezarce wants all young people to reach their potential and attain the health and stability that can come with secure careers. She sometimes wonders if she has truly overcome her early trauma, she said. But she knows going to college and having a meaningful career has given her stability, healthy friendships and a quality of life she would not have had otherwise.

“We all have our little cultures, whatever they are, even if it is just a family culture,” she said. “It’s hard to recognize that and to be honest about it.

“For me, what Mi Futuro has always been about is making known more clearly the social inequalities of students who don’t have enough and are not likely to have enough throughout their whole life unless they really choose something different.”

And Mi Futuro, she said, provides some good choices and a path to achieve them.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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