Although being a parent is a blessing, it can also be a lot of work. Being a parent to a child with a developmental disability is a special labor of love. Yet Liz Perez leverages this personal journey into a passion for helping others. As a Support Coordinator for the DES Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD), Perez has exercised this passion every day for 21 years.
Perez, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Social Work, began her career with the Arizona Early Intervention Program (AzEIP) at DES, which assists babies and toddlers who experience significant developmental delays. These services help little ones catch up with their peers in their developmental milestones and increases the child’s chances for success in school. At the time, there was only one early intervention office in the Phoenix area. “I remember I had to drive all over,” said Perez. Her territory boundaries ran from Central Avenue in Phoenix to Queen Creek, north to Fountain Hills and south to Ahwatukee.
“I was young … full of energy and I had a passion--and I still do!” said Perez. “A passion to help others. I loved it.”
Perez’s inspiration? Her son, Rodger Rodriguez. Rodriquez has Down syndrome, and he is thriving.
Rodger the Gold Medalist
Rodriguez is a Special Olympics gold medalist. He enjoys a wide range of sports, including unified volleyball, golf, tennis, kayaking and swimming. In fact, Rodriguez was on the Marco de Niza High School swim team.
At age 18, he qualified for Special Olympics World Games tennis competition. That year, the competition was held in Ireland. “He loves sports. He loves attending sports games as well.” Rodriguez will attend the DES/D-backs Down Syndrome Awareness Month fundraising game on September 28.
Rodger the Rockstar
Rodriguez currently receives speech, occupational and music therapies through DDD. The music therapy program through Higher Octave Healing is a special favorite. Rodriguez’s band, formerly called the Warriors, gives him opportunities to sing, play the bass guitar, the keyboard or drums. Each year, the Warriors and other Higher Octave rock bands host an annual “Music from the Heart” performance. This year’s performance will be on November 2 at the Tempe Center of the Arts with Rodriguez’s band scheduled to play at 6:00 p.m.
Rodger the Ambassador
Rodriguez’s celebrity will be highlighted on September 14 during the National Down Syndrome Society’s (NDSS) Buddy Walk® held in New York City. This year, a photograph of Rodriguez wearing a D-backs jersey was selected among thousands of other submissions from around the world to be projected on the Times Square Jumbotron. These photos, representing children, teens and adults with Down syndrome, promote acceptance and inclusion, which is the foundation of NDSS and the National Buddy Walk Program. “It’s kind of like the kick-off to go do the Buddy Walk at Central Park,” said Perez.
Locally, Rodriguez and Perez will participate in a similar event to be held in Tempe on November 23. Team “Rockin Rodger” will join other Arizona families and individuals with Down syndrome in the Down Syndrome Network’s Buddy Walk that is held in conjunction with the Arizona State University Homecoming Parade.
A Passion for the Profession
Helping her son excel and helping others thrive are the foundation of Perez’s passion. A favorite part of her job is connecting with families who have a child with Down syndrome or other developmental disability. “[I] just [love] being able to relate my personal stories of navigating the system – the school system, the DDD system, the health system – to learn the ropes of how to be a special ed parent and how to be within the system.”
She also loves to “teach others how to advocate for themselves and their child. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me to help others in that manner because of [my] personal touch.”
“It’s been a rewarding career for me--it really has!” concluded Perez. She has worked with different families over the years and her work has been so impactful that families have specifically requested she remain as the support coordinator for their children. “I have around 10 families [who] insisted on staying with me… I have attended high school graduations for a couple of my clients now; when I started working with them when they were two months old. And now they’ve graduated from high school. It’s kind of a neat experience to be able to see them through their lifetime; see them graduate and move on to adulthood.”
Dedicated and never discouraged, Perez reflects upon her son’s accomplishments and future. “He’s a very loving, good character person [who] just loves everyone. He’s quite the comedian in our family; the life of the party. [He’s a] hard worker [and] he’s independent. He’s had a good life.”
As for her own accomplishments and future, “I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”
By Lyn Riley