The setbacks Mary T. Perry has faced may not be unusual, but there is something about the way she has overcome them that has gotten the attention of a national award committee.
The 48-year-old Mashpee mother of three is one of 16 national finalists for the Most Inspirational Mom award, a competition sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club of America, Kimberly-Clark Corporation and the University of Phoenix. Three winners will be announced in early May and will receive full-tuition scholarships to the University of Phoenix and products from Kimberly-Clark.
The finalists were selected for their “contributions to their children, families, and communities,” according to a press release from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Ruth W. Provost, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Cape Cod, said she got to know Ms. Perry when her two younger children, now ages 14 and 11, started coming to the club many years ago. Ms. Provost encouraged Ms. Perry to apply for the award.
“She’s a really hard worker,” Ms. Provost said. “Her kids are amazing, lovely children, despite all the barriers she has overcome to raise them that way. She exemplifies what a hard-working parent is like.”
“I was just shocked that they would consider me,” said Ms. Perry, sitting at the kitchen table at her Cransbourne Circle home. “I am just flattered.”
Ms. Perry, who speaks in a gentle, unhurried way, recalled how she began working at age 14 in the tobacco fields outside of Hartford, Connecticut, and made her way through school to become a licensed practical nurse. Many times she was her household’s sole income earner since becoming a mother 26 years ago. Hard work has been a constant reality through two divorces and her younger son’s diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. Her challenges continued earlier this year when she lost her job at a nursing home in February after working there for 17 years.
Ms. Perry’s childhood was marked by adversity. Her father, a police officer, died when she was 9 years old. Her sister, two years her senior, was born with an open cleft palate and intellectual disabilities. Her older brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager and lives in a group home.
Ms. Perry’s mother represented a role model for her, working as a nurse to support her family and advocating strongly on behalf of her disabled daughter at a time when people with disabilities were often segregated in public school.
When Ms. Perry graduated from high school at age 17, she had already moved on from stringing up tobacco leaves and had started working as a photographer for the portrait company Olan Mills. She married a co-worker at age 18 and gave birth to her son David at 21. Before the boy turned 2, her husband left.
“The rent came due, the lights went out, the phone went out,” she said. “I was sitting at home with an infant, and everything was shut down on me.”
Ms. Perry moved to her mother’s home in East Hartford and relied on public assistance to feed herself and her baby.
“It was the baby and me and the State of Connecticut,” she said.
She took a job as a nurse’s aide and walked two miles to work because she could not afford a car. Sometimes the nurses would give her a ride home.
Things were about to turn around. Ms. Perry saved up $1,000 to buy course books and entered a program to become a licensed practical nurse. When she finished the program, in 1990, she passed the board exams and was soon offered a full-time job. It was a major turning point, and a huge relief, she said.
“I got that call and I screamed,” she said. “I just said, ‘Thank you so much.’ ”
It was the start of what she said has been a two decades-long career in nursing that has been fulfilling and allowed her to support her family financially.
“I love my patients every day,” she said. “I want to bring something special into their daily lives.”
Ms. Perry moved to Mashpee in 1995 when she took a job at a nursing home, while her second husband worked in auto repair in Falmouth. According to the former director of nursing at Mashpee Care and Rehabilitation Center, Barbara A. Smith, Ms. Perry showed herself to be an excellent nurse and a devoted mother.
“She has been through ups and downs, and she stuck through thick and thin, with her children first,” she said. “You couldn’t ask for a better parent.”
Ms. Perry’s daughter Laura was born in 1997 and son Matthew was born in 2000. Ms. Perry again single-handedly supported the family when her husband lost his job and remained unemployed for several years. In 2005, that marriage ended.
She worked with counselors and teachers in the Mashpee Public School District to work out the best learning environment for Matthew, whose diagnosis at 10 with Asperger syndrome came after an exhausting battery of tests and doctors’ visits. Ms. Perry said Mashpee schools, the Boys & Girls Club, and Cub Scouts have been valuable allies for Matthew.
“He’s like my little professor,” she said, explaining that when Matthew is interested in a topic, he can remember a dizzying number of facts and figures.
Now Ms. Perry is facing her latest challenge—finding a new job. She said she will look for a job as a licensed practical nurse in home care or assisted living. She is also considering going back to school to earn the degree of registered nurse. It is a strategy that has worked in the past, she said.
If she wins the Most Inspirational Mom award, she will look into using some credits from the University of Phoenix toward the RN degree at Cape Cod Community College, she said. No matter what happens, the nomination was a boost, when she needed one.
“It was an honor to be considered,” she said.