Mark Hendricks still remembers one of the first nights he drove Khairi Perry home from a Federal Way Boys &Girls Club function.
The executive director pulled into the parking lot of a motel known more for illegal activity than continental breakfast along Pacific Highway.
“This is where you’re staying?,” a genuinely confused Hendricks asked.
“For a little while,” Perry replied.
It was at that moment the gravity of something Hendricks had known for years became a tangible reality. One of the brightest kids to ever walk through the Federal Way Boys &Girls Club was homeless. It was a fight Perry and his family battled off and on since the sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School was 5 years old.
Growing up, life was difficult for Perry. Not only was he taking care of two younger brothers and a younger sister, the ability to keep his living situation a secret became too much to bare. At 13, Perry nearly took his own life, but thanks to his grandparents, youth sports coaches and Hendricks, he decided he had too much to live for.
Perry was honored for his turnaround and drive to attend college and become an engineer on July 18 at the annual Federal Way at the Boys &Girls Club breakfast at Emerald Downs.
“I am so thankful for football,” Perry said. “I loved football because it was an outlet for me. It was an acceptable environment for me to release all of the anger I was holding. I’ve always been good with controlling it, but sports just allowed me a positive way to deal with what was going on in my life.”
WRITINGS ON THE WALL
Perry’s world was turned upside down just after his 5th birthday.
Struggles with money ultimately ended his parents’ relationship, and, as a result, began his cycle of homelessness.
Sometimes he and his siblings would stay with relatives, sometimes it was a repugnant motel along Highway 99.
No matter where he stayed, Perry knew it all meant the same thing — he was homeless.
“They would tell me what was going down,” Perry said. “Even when I got older and started to understand my situation, I still didn’t ask questions because I figured no one could answer them. I would try to find an answer myself. When that was a dead end, it was school and sports that were there for me.”
As Perry got older, he got smarter.
Perry discovered he was officially classified as homeless by pure accident. While helping out with office work at his elementary school, he caught a glimpse of his school records.
His file all but spelled out in big, bold letters that he was listed under McKinney-Vento. As a part of that program, he was part of the district’s free and reduced lunch program (including other services).
Perry was confused by what the notation meant, so he asked questions.
“I wanted to know why my friends had to pay for lunch but I didn’t,” Perry said. “They told me it was for people that were low income or homeless. Not only did the file say I was McKinney-Vento, right next to it was the word ‘homeless.’”
OTHERS BEFORE SELF
As Perry grew older, his responsibilities for his younger siblings took priority.
He often found his three younger siblings a place to stay for the night before he knew where he would spend the night.
As the eldest, it was very important he helped them with their homework. He took tremendous pride in the responsibility knowing his parents either weren’t able to help, or they just didn’t have the time.
The responsibility never went without challenges, though. The younger kids often asked their older brother why other kids had one home they went to every day and they did not.
“It was very difficult,” Perry said. “I couldn’t just come right out and tell them. That’s not how explaining homelessness works. I learned the best way to break it down for them was little by little, piece by piece.”
Because Perry was having such a hard time dealing with the family’s homelessness, he did not want his brothers or sister to face the same psychological demons he did each day.
He told them to never, ever, come straight home after school let out.
Instead, he told them to go to a friend’s house and play games or do homework. Or, he recommended they go out for sports or other after school activities.
Perry went as far as to create an on-paper plan for his younger siblings. They were to go to school, stay after school to finish any homework, then they were to go to a friend’s house or sports once their schoolwork was done.
“My first priority was to protect them,” Perry said. “I tried to hide the truth about what was going on. Life was already hard enough for me. I didn’t want it to be hard for them. I tried to stay strong, force a smile on my face even though I was dying on the inside.”
SLEEPING IN THE COLD
Perry can describe every minute detail of the 1999 GMC Envoy his mother drove.
It was, after all, his home for far longer than he would have liked.
Because it was an older SUV, the interior’s leather seats wore over time and were torn. With the family’s belongings all stored in duffle bags throughout the car, space was tighter than normal.
Living in the car meant sleeping in it, too. The family only had one blanket for four kids. Since Perry was oldest, and biggest, he took the blanket and wrapped it around himself. Once it was warm from his body heat, he handed it off to his siblings.
“I just had to learn to sleep without a blanket,” Perry said. “Or a pillow. It’s really hard in a car, but it can be done. My body just got used to it.”
As far as sleeping arrangements went, it was Perry’s closest friends he sought help from.
He asked his friends and their parents if it was all right for he and his family to park in front of their homes to sleep for the night.
What still haunts Perry about those nights was how cruel the Envoy’s leather interior was on both his skin and soul on those January nights.
“Many people don’t understand what it’s like to sleep outdoors with no heat in the winter,” Perry said. “I remember the wind would blow and it was almost like the car wasn’t even there. The cold would come right through, and it was like it became worse because of how it would bounce off those leather seats and shoot straight into you, or it would make the seats so cold it was almost impossible to sleep.”
Often times when he would wake up from what seemed like mere seconds of sleep, the family was driving again, either to school or a new location.
And just waking up presented its own challenges. Perry routinely woke up with neck, back and leg pains, but he grew numb to the daily aches and pains as sleeping in the Envoy became routine.
Perry was forced to go days without the luxury of a hot shower, or change the clothes he wore for over 24 hours.
“I would be fortunate every so often to get to go to a friend’s house and shower just before school,” Perry said. “Otherwise, yeah, kids would say this and that about me. There were people judging, making life harder. Living in a car is hard. Living on a friend’s bedroom floor is hard.”
Eating proved to be a challenge, too. Without amenities like a stove or even a microwave, the Perry siblings were always limited when it came to dinner.
Perry cringed when words like Lunchables or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches came up as those were two dinners that appeared all too regularly.
There were days Perry just had to draw a line. He wasn’t going to eat another Lunchable, so he would go without dinner and dream of the warm lunch that awaited him at school the next afternoon.
“Moments like these hardened me,” Perry said. “But it also made me strong. It taught me how to control anger. It taught me how to adapt and be a stronger person.”
By the time he turned 13 and entered the seventh grade, he said his brain and his heart lost the ability to smile. He physically couldn’t bring himself to smile.
Even finding a new outlet in the Federal Way Boys &Girls Club, Perry taught himself how to force a smile. There was no feeling, no emotion behind. When he was in a situation he thought a smile was required, he turned it on.
The facade didn’t work, though. Over time, friends, teachers and coaches began to see right through it.
“He’s just overcome lots and lots of challenges,” Hendricks said. “Challenges that most of us couldn’t withstand. He’s not only withstood them, he’s thrived. And through it all, he’s such a nice, down-to-earth kid. You just know he’s going to go do things in spite of his environment growing up.”
What ultimately put suicide at the forefront of Perry’s mind was his mother.
While she did as best she could for her kids, the reality of life was just as difficult for her. Like her oldest son, there were days, recurring days, that she just couldn’t hold it in anymore.
She tried her best to cry when the kids were not around so they would not have to see it, but since the five lived in tight living quarters, Perry caught his mother’s emotional moments every time. Sometimes, they were light, frustrated tears. Other times, Perry found her inconsolable.
Those hysterical cries became too much. It frightened the younger siblings to the point they didn’t want to go to school. And it forced Perry to question the purpose of living.
“Having to see my mother cry, and my siblings afraid to go to school,” Perry said. “And our living situation, the kids at school spreading rumors. It all just got to be too much for me. I started taking everything for granted. When I realized I was doing that, I was just done with life.”
He found studying impossible, tears constantly distracting his concentration. The demons of stress kept Perry from sleeping, and the combination of depression and exhaustion all but terminated his will to eat. Perry even imposed a starvation policy.
When Perry’s very own friends failed or did not care to notice his obvious cries for help, he failed to see any alternative to suicide.
While Perry ultimately decided against taking his own life, the experience didn’t resolve without scars. He evolved into much more of an introvert, opting to be a quiet observer rather than the life of the party.
“I was just done,” Perry said. “I just couldn’t understand how friends just didn’t care.”
IN THE NICK OF TIME
If not for Tyree and Joyce Perry, there is a chance Khairi Perry may not be alive today.
When it came time for football and basketball sign-ups, or the membership to the Federal Way Boys &Girls Club for all four grandkids, his grandparents were there to take care of the fees, which his parents could not afford.
They were there to provide the emotional support he so desperately needed, too.
Khairi Perry could count on one hand how many games his parents attended because they regularly took on extra shifts at work. But Tyree and Joyce Perry were always in attendance — every game.
“They were the sole reason I stayed sane and kept it together,” Perry said. “They were always there. They kept me away from the bad in life by making sure I had school and sports.”
With sports the most consistent thing in Perry’s life, he learned to open back up.
After bonding with his head football coach, Perry opened up to him about his homeless situation and his depression. With his coaches more than willing to take the time to just listen, his depression and thoughts of suicide decreased over time.
His passion for school and studying returned. His grades went from below satisfactory to straight A’s. And the passion for sports returned, too.
Even though it’s been three years since he was regularly homeless, the anger it created is still very real.
Perry manages it through school and sports. He treats his anger as if it were an alter ego.
The way Perry sees it: Anger doesn’t like straight A’s, so he does that. Anger does not like outlets, so Perry turns to football and basketball.
“He’s put up with a lot,” Hendricks said. “But when he comes to the club, you get to see him be himself, and that is just a truly nice kid. He loves his education just as much as he loves sports, and that’s something really rare.”
Hendricks and the Federal Way Boys &Girls Club gave Perry the space and freedom to excel at both.
The club not only provided a quiet place to study, it also gave him freedom to play the sports that help him heal.
Under Hendricks’ mentorship, Perry and his siblings discovered many firsts, such as what it is like to receive a present, just for them, on Christmas.
It is where Perry felt what it was like to put on a fresh suit for the first time, or put on a pair of shoes that did not have holes in the soles.
“Mark gave me clothes and food when I needed it most,” Perry said. “They’ve always been a part of me, my family since we moved out here.”
COMING OUT STRONG
Hendricks and the rest of Perry’s Federal Way Boys &Girls Club family has made a difference in his life. The club and his youth sports coaches even saved him from making a heartbreaking choice.
The Boys &Girls Club, which Perry joined in the sixth grade, helped set him up for a life of success.
Though he still has a couple years left at Thomas Jefferson High School, he did not flinch when asked what the future holds.
Since he has a deep passion for both technology and science, Perry wants to attend the University of Oregon, where he can study IT technology and chemical engineering.
Perry figured with goals and aspirations like those and everything he has overcome by age 16, there’s no way he will grow old in that motel parking lot.
“Adaptability is important to who I am,” Perry said. “It’s meant you try and try and never give up because there’s always something to look forward to. There’s always someone to help, and there’s always something to do. There’s always a reason to smile.”