Opening Doors Through a Mother’s Heart

From despair to hope, Iris Peralta found a new door opened, her life changed, and a new joy in being a mother, with help from a Florida program supported by Wells Fargo.
May 9, 2019 1:00 PM ET

With motors and machine tools surrounding her, Iris Peralta smiles as she wields a welding gun at her workstation. Her work on the factory floor is to create new specialty parts for high-end sports cars.

She dons her protective helmet, positions the welding wand, and works the sweet science of machining she has come to love. With steady precision, she shapes the metal parts that will help the cars run like a top.

“I really like this, working with my hands,” said Peralta, 27, who comes from a family line of metalwork fabricators. “I guess it’s in my blood.” Visit Wells Fargo Stories to watch the video:

Life is good these days for the single mother and domestic abuse survivor, who only a few years ago took her then-infant daughter and fled the violence. She took refuge in her mother’s one-bedroom apartment, sleeping on the couch with her tiny daughter sleeping in a playpen next to her. Then she landed a spot in Project OPEN, a program formally known as the Osceola Poverty Elimination Network, which supports education and job training for men and women of need in Osceola County, near Orlando, Florida.

Long hours of hard work followed as Peralta earned two associate degrees at a community college while working various jobs to make ends meet and support her daughter Serenity. It culminated with graduation, getting a place of her own, a new boyfriend, and a full-time job at Titan Motorsports, a specialty auto parts maker in Orlando.

Now she’s become an ambassador for Project OPEN, speaking to other women in the community, describing how it changed her life, and, of course, telling them about Serenity. Peralta also has a growing following for her artwork — sculptures that she creates using her welding skills.

“If not for my daughter, I would not be where I am today,” she said. “She’s my motivation and inspiration. When she was born, I was in a really tough place, but I decided right then I would show her that you can follow your dreams and have a better life through hard work and determination.”

The heart of ‘Momma Em’

Peralta also credits Project OPEN director Emily Moreland for supporting her every step of the way. Known as “Momma Em” to those in the program, Moreland has a heart for everyone and takes a personal interest in them, she said.

“I never knew someone could believe in me like that,” Peralta said. “She has been such a blessing in my life, such a blessing. I would do anything for her.”

Moreland knows she represents a mother figure in the program, especially for young women like Peralta. Never one to shy away from showing tough love, Moreland said she makes sure they stay in line, get to class on time, dress appropriately, have good study habits, and develop a good work ethic.

“That’s kind of what we did for Iris,” she said. “I really became her second mom. She has a wonderful mother that I’ve met, who has gone through trials of her own. We just tried to help Iris along the way and make sure she had the tools, support, and self-esteem that she needed to focus and make a life for her and her daughter.”

Having a vision for people

Since Project OPEN started six years ago — with help from a grant from Wells Fargo — it has touched the lives of hundreds of people, more than 60% of them at-risk women like Peralta was. Nearly 280 women and men have graduated with training for careers in health care, construction trades, welding, electronic board assembly, avionics, and manufacturing.

Program organizers chose the training areas after talking to business leaders who helped identify high-priority job needs of local businesses, said Donna Sines, executive director and co-founder of Community Vision, a community development agency and the parent of Project OPEN.

After an initial meeting with local leaders to discuss the project, Sines said Wells Fargo responded with a $15,000 contribution to help Project OPEN begin. As one of the founding donors, the company has since given the program more than $111,000 and contributed financial education courses for the recipients. In 2018 alone, Wells Fargo contributed $19.1 million to 1,200 charities in Florida and $445 million to about 11,000 charities nationwide, according to company data.

After Project OPEN recipients have passed a rigorous application and selection process, the scholarship program pays for their tuition, school supplies, work uniforms, and employment-required health and drug tests. Though recipients still have to pay their own way in terms of living costs, the program has a 98% graduation rate, with most of the graduates still employed today in their field of study, according to Sines.

“Wells Fargo was the first to step forward and believe that this idea had a shot,” she said. “I really was grateful for that, because once we had that seed money, I was able to go to the group and say, ‘It’s a go!’ The excitement level was just extraordinary. We really felt like we could do something here to change lives — not just the moms and dads, but also of their kids.”

Through the years, Project OPEN has delivered what it promised from the start, said Angela Buchanan, head of Wells Fargo’s South Central Florida region. She noted Wells Fargo’s corporate philanthropy puts a high priority on reaching people in need and improving communities that the company serves.

“Our mission is to really make a difference, to help and support the communities in which we live,” she said. “Project OPEN definitely is a wonderful example of how we’re able to do that. They have found a need and identified individuals we can help by giving them skills, training them to find better paying jobs and improve their situation in life. It really gives people hope and transforms their families.”

The latest in decades of programs

In Community Vision’s 25-year history, Project OPEN is the most recent in a long list of programs led by Sines and her management team, including associate director Sue Ring. The programs include community leadership development, workplace and lifestyle counseling for the unemployed, a community services clearinghouse, youth leadership for at-risk students, and health care for the poor.

From 1995 to 2005, the agency spearheaded an effort with AdventHealth (formerly Florida Hospital), the state’s largest nonprofit health care organization, to create a series of free clinics for the uninsured and underinsured in Osceola County.

For years, Community Vision was most widely known for its role in helping to establish the free clinics partnership. Now, Project OPEN has become another signature program for the organization, said Meghan Curren, director of community relations for AdventHealth, a major donor and partner with the agency.

“Our hospitals have hired a number of the certified nursing assistants that have come out of Project OPEN, and we’re impressed with the quality of the graduates,” she said. “We really see the program’s impact on their lives. They’re people who just needed somebody to offer them a hand and give them an opportunity that allows them to excel in their lives and careers.”

Sines said she appreciates the recognition Community Vision has received, but the agency prefers to do its work in the background, studying the changing needs of a diverse population, pulling resources together, forging alliances, and finding solutions.

“We are very much behind the scenes,” Sines added. “We see Community Vision as the thread that sort of binds the community together, but folks never really know we are there. For example, most people don’t know we are behind Project OPEN. They just see all these individuals now on their way to make a living and transforming their lives.”