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Hilda Pérez Helps Delinquents
By Rene Stutzman
December 8, 2001
Making a difference.
SANFORD -- Hilda Pérez has to work for a living, but if she didn't, she'd volunteer full time as one of the few Spanish-speaking hearing officers for Seminole County's PAY program.
"I love that program," she said.
Prosecution Alternatives for Youth is a diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders, kids who shoplift, get into a fight or commit other minor infractions.
Perez, 59, of Sanford, does clerical work for the Seminole County Probation Department, but during her off hours -- sometimes her lunch hour -- she'll preside over a PAY hearing.
It includes the child accused of the crime, parents, the victim, the law enforcement officer who made the arrest and a PAY staffer.
They'll talk about what happened and what the offender needs to do to set it right. Perez then settles on a sanction, such as ordering the child to do community service or pay restitution.
She's even ordered one to mow the victim's lawn.
"Sometimes if you get them in time, that's all they need, somebody to say, 'Stop,' " Perez said. "The main thing is to let them know everybody makes mistakes and not to continue doing them."
Although the program has about 50 hearing officers, all volunteers, it only has four or five who speak Spanish.
Perez is one, although she had to learn the language as an adult. She was born in Puerto Rico, moved to New York at age 5, then married and moved back to Puerto Rico when she was 23. It was there that she learned Spanish.
That makes her especially valuable, said Jean Jeffcoat, who manages the PAY program.
Perez handles about one PAY hearing a week, usually those involving families who speak Spanish.
"I figure Spanish-speaking people really need somebody, not usually the kids, but the parents don't know what's going on, and they need to be informed about conditions and what's going on with their kids."