President Obama has presented Roberto Perez with the Presidential Citizens Medal—the nation’s second-highest decoration awarded to civilians—for his efforts to combat illiteracy throughout the world.
The Cuban-born Perez serves as president of Alfalit, a non-profit organization with 6,000 volunteers committed to fighting illiteracy from Africa to South America. Because of his efforts, about seven million people in 22 countries in the Americas, Africa and Europe have learned to read and write in the organization’s 50-year history.
The former Miami-Dade County social worker arrived in the United States from Cuba at the age of 17, he quickly learned how difficult it was to get by without knowing how to read and write English. For a long time, he was misled into accepting lower wages. When he injured his finger while working in a factory, Perez was afraid he’d never be able to work again.
Since then, he’s dedicated his life to learning and teaching. First he educated himself; then he starting helping others “come out of the shadows” of ignorance.
“For a person who doesn’t know how to read or write it’s as if he’s blind,” says the 68-year-old ordained Methodist pastor who has counseled prison inmates and alcoholics. “Many people are in the shadows for that reason…and our objective is to change… their lives (so that) they aren’t mistreated because they’re considered to be ignorant”.
Perez is one of 13 recipients who received this year’s medal at a special White House ceremony today.
“They come from different backgrounds” and have “devoted themselves to different causes,” Obama said. “They are united by the choice that they’ve made. They could have made an excuse to do nothing; instead they chose to help.”
The Presidential Citizens Medal was established in 1969 to recognize Americans who have performed exemplary service that has had a lasting effect on others, their community, the nation or the world.