By Sheryl Kornman
In her blue-framed eyeglasses, leopard-print kitten heels and skinny jeans, Kathleen Perkins may look a bit like a rock star to the 400 children of John B. Wright Elementary School, most of whom live in tired rentals in a poverty pocket in midtown Tucson.
This Philadelphia native is a former foster child with a heart of gold. Five years ago, she committed herself to helping the children of John B. Wright to succeed.
Perkins said she knows “these kids are going to grow up one way or another,” and she’d like them to grow up knowing people care about them – and that they can do more than just struggle to survive.
As a volunteer advocate at the school that she calls “JBW,” this consultant to the European Union who lives in Tucson and travels the world on business has flooded the school with hands-on science and hope. She chose Wright after driving past the school at 4311 E. Linden St. several times and then stopping in for a visit. Principal Maria Marin welcomed her help.
“Kathleen thinks like a CEO and I think like an educator/principal,” Marin said. “We respect and learn from each other. Together, and without extra funding and in great spirit, we have made much progress. The kids see us working and laughing and they know good things are happening for them.”
As a businesswoman, Perkins sees poverty as a business issue.
“A high poverty rate is not a compelling reason to move here and start a company. It is a matter of how a community recognizes it and deals with it.” She asked herself: “What is the poverty reduction plan and how is it working? Where will a third grader today find work in 2025?”
Perkins said this volunteer opportunity “just kind of grabbed me. This was not planned.”
She was busy enough in her own career and life without this new commitment. The former CEO of a global optical engineering firm, she’s now a photonics industry expert and international business consultant who serves on many scientific boards. And she’s married to a rocket scientist.
The effort at Wright works “because we flood and focus, with a great principal and effective teachers,” she said.
She looks at what she can do there from a CEO model: “What’s effective? How do you cut the resistance? You have to stay focused and committed.”
Perkins quickly “got tied to the kids” at Wright.
“These are children who know how to get along. They see stuff early that they have to deal with. They have backbone. And they really want to know what the middle class looks like.”
Perkins said 100 percent of the children qualify for government subsidized lunch. Many live with what the experts call “food insecurity” and irregular access to medical care. There are 28 nationalities represented at the school. Wright’s population is seeded with international refugees relocated from conflict regions to Tucson. Seventy percent are being raised by one adult, not one of them with a college degree.
“They live a very fluid and transient home life,” Perkins said.
Colleen Niccum, the recently retired director of community and government relations at Raytheon Missile Systems, said Perkins’ commitment to the children at Wright “is such a great example of how one person can drive change. Instead of continuing to drive by the school each day, she took the important step of stopping to see how she could help.
“If each of us took that step, we could solve a lot of problems in our community,” Niccum continued. “I am thankful to Kathleen for the inspiration she provides to all of us, and for caring enough to make such a difference for the students at John B. Wright.”
Jim Gentile, who recently retired as president of Tucson-based Research Corporation for Science Advancement, volunteered as the school’s chief science officer. Wright also has its own chief technical officer, Ron Carsten, former chief engineer at Raytheon. They helped put together Wright’s STEM Lab, which shows the children the value of learning about science, technology, engineering and math.
Perkins raised $60,000 to fund the 18,000-square-foot STEM campus, which includes a vegetable garden in the school’s atrium. The students learn about solar technology and use a rainwater capture system for the garden.
“One day, I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if they had fresh vegetables?’ While I was on business in Belgium, I realized I could email at night and work with executives and Maria (Marin) to make it happen,” she said.
A former CEO of Breault Research Organization in Tucson, Perkins is a longtime member of the University of Arizona College of Science Dean’s Board of Advisors and chair of the Business Advisory Board at UA’s Bio5 Institute. She and Gentile were honored recently by the Educational Enrichment Foundation for their volunteer work at Wright. Both were recognized, in part, for increasing awareness of the values of humanitarianism.
Wright students have learned to ask effective questions and interact with scientists, Perkins said. So far, 35 scientists have visited the school, looked poverty in the eye, she said, and helped inspire the children.
The children are now familiar with various college degrees and the Nobel Prize. They also know they can make a living as a solar installer by studying technology.
Perkins said not every child will make it on to college, and she wants them to know they have options. “I don’t want any of them to feel like failures because they don’t go to college. They do need to learn how to do their best work and learn financial literacy and civics.”
Recently, some of the children at Wright got a lesson in traditional Russian tea and sweets, thanks to Yakov Sidorin, a Tucson-based, Russian-born engineer and patent attorney with a Ph.D in optical sciences. His Russian mother made the sweets.
This was no ordinary tea party for these fourth graders. It was a peek over the fence into the world beyond.