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12 Who Care: Cuban immigrant uses past experiences of hardship to help others

Ed Perez is the President and CEO of Three Grains of Rice Missions. His passion is to fight homelessness and help women and children in need.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Edward Perez came to the U.S. with only the clothes on his back. He knows what it's like to be homeless. He uses his experiences and his passion to change lives not only in Northeast Florida, but from Cuba to Colombia and beyond.

“I came here from Cuba. I lived through a war in Cuba, where I physically saw individuals that were dead, and that impacted me,” Perez said. “I saw my dad and mom lose everything they had to communism.”

When Perez arrived in America at the age of 14 with his parents. They came with nothing, not knowing how they would survive.

“I have never forgotten that, but also haven't forgotten the angels that came into my life and guided me and strengthened me and provided the shepherding that I needed,” Perez said. “That's what energized me, and I know it is possible, and I know we can make a difference in people's lives.”

After a 42-year career at CSX, Perez retired, but instead of slowing down, he and Stacey Perez started Three Grains of Rice Missions in 2016.

“My war is against homelessness, poverty and violence,” Perez said. “Whatever I can do to achieve that goal, that's what I'm going to do. If I can help other nonprofits become more effective, if I can help them achieve much more, that's what I'm going to do.”

From partnering with the Homeless Coalition of St. Johns County to provide housing to those living on the streets, to sending medical supplies collected from local hospitals to Cuba and Haiti, his non-profit, made up of all volunteers, meets the needs of those struggling in all different ways.

“The question we ask individuals is, ‘What do you do with your extra items?’” Perez said. “In St. Augustine, there is a need for transportation for the homeless community. So, the question I asked at UNF is, ‘What do you do with the extra bikes when students leave?’ And they said, ‘Well, you know, actually it becomes a problem for us.’ So, this year, we took 45 of those bikes, and we deployed it in St. Augustine. We deployed it in Duval.” 

Perez says you don't have to leave your community to make a difference.

“People have a misconception. They think a mission field you have to go thousands of miles away, but the mission field is where you are, right now, right here.”

His mission is to motivate people to get involved and help them find opportunities to take care of those in need.

“I am so blessed to be able to do what I do,” Perez said. “Who would have thought that this poor boy who arrived in this country with nothing, homeless would be here today, trying to go ahead and do what we're doing today. That is what's possible when we work together and help one another.”

In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, Perez has this message: "My message is to believe, to never stop dreaming and know that our mighty God will never forsake them. Let’s embrace our youth and teach them that they have a mission and purpose to fulfill. In this great country all is possible! But also, never stop caring for those in need."

Three Grains of Rice Missions is always looking for volunteers. They are also collecting the following items:

  • Over the counter medication - aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.
  • Soccer balls, shoes and clothing
  • Baseball equipment

To learn more visit their website or Facebook page.