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COMMENTARY

From St. Luke's to law school: Joanah Perkins blazes her own path

Sydnie Perkins already knows how much she will miss her sister, Joanah. Sydnie, the older sibling by three years, shared a childhood room where she and Joanah played games of make-believe before they slept at night – pretending, for instance, they were alone in the ocean, swept adrift.

In the morning, before their feet touched the ground, the sisters would recall their dreams out loud.

Sydnie, 24, works at Canisius College and is closing on a master's degree in communication and leadership. Right into this spring, once her job or classes ended for the day, she often met Joanah to take long walks around Hoyt Lake at Delaware Park, conversations that touched both on what they had seen and what was coming.

The biggest change of all happened Sunday, when Joanah’s family dropped her off at a new apartment in Boston, where she is about to begin classes at the New England School of Law.

“She’s my best friend, my yin and yang,” Sydnie said, and the farewell was as difficult in some ways as any she has known.

Even so, what she felt above all else was joy. There are some goodbyes, as Sydnie puts it, that you always hope to say.

"She's very strong," she said of her sister. "She always had this drive."

Joanah, a child raised within the East Side community of St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, graduated from Canisius in preparation for this chance to attend law school. Her departure has profound meaning at St. Luke’s, whose kindergarten-to-eighth-grade home school has embraced many children raised in struggle, providing extensive support with powerful results.

Joanah Perkins, right, with Amy Betros, co-founder of St. Luke's Mission of Mercy. Perkins left last weekend for law school. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

About 90 percent of the 25 graduates since the school's founding 12 years ago have gone on to college, said Mike Taheri, volunteer director of education. The departure of Joanah, who earned a high school diploma at Mount St. Mary Academy, carries specific resonance.

Not only she is the first St. Luke's graduate to leave Buffalo to attend an out-of-town school, but she is also the first to pursue a law degree. That decision was inspired in no small part by Taheri, a St. Luke’s missionary and volunteer who has built a career as a defense attorney in Buffalo.

“She has just been a light in my life for a long time,” Taheri said.

For Joanah, 21, all her memories are wrapped up in the mission. Her mother, Michelle Matthews, became friends more than 25 years ago with Amy Betros, then-owner of the prosperous restaurant known as Amy’s Place. It was Betros who teamed up with the late Norm Paolini, a researcher at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, to found St. Luke's.

Matthews remembers being there at the beginning.

"When Amy walked in, we were together," she recalls of their first steps into the old church. Sydnie, Joanah and their younger brother Joshua, now 15, spent their childhood in a house on Miller Avenue, within the larger mission.

[ALSO BY SEAN KIRST: Three St. Luke's graduates celebrate "the love you need to succeed"]

Joanah, who speaks with admiration of her mother’s strength, refers to Betros as her grandmother. She said many of the missionaries at St. Luke's, such as Charlene Mallory or Dave Topor, were a regular part of her daily routine since her early memories.

As for Taheri, going back to when Joanah was a girl, he opened doors by taking her to places that provided the child with a kind of civic insight beyond her years.

“Just seeing the way lawyers interact" helped her realize, she said, how there was an unseen world that played a direct role in the lives of neighborhood families around her. She grew to understand how there were people in faraway offices making decisions about which properties should be saved or leveled, and which services might survive or disappear, and which jobs would be created or lost.

To make a difference for the people she loved the most, Joanah knew she had to find a way to operate in those rooms, on equal footing. "I think," she said, "it's why the law's always enticed me."

That passion is reflected in both her efficiency and empathy, said Kevin Robinson, a deputy chief who helps supervise financial litigation at the U.S. Attorney’s office. Joanah said Robinson emerged as a key mentor while she served for two years as an intern for U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr.

“She was a forward thinker,” Robinson said, quick to complete what she was asked to do at work, and she also brought what he saw as a defining characteristic to the job.

Joanah Perkins with Mike Taheri, a mentor of hers, and her mother, Michelle Matthews, outside St. Luke's Church on Walden Avenue. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

“It was just her sense of being human,” Robinson said, while Kennedy describes her as "a blessing and a joy." On the day he learned of her acceptance into law school, he sent a celebratory email to everyone on his staff.

In conversations before she left Buffalo, Joanah kept making the same point. It would be a mistake, she said, to portray her trajectory as unusual. She can stand in front of St. Luke’s on Walden Avenue and see children and young people who are figuring out how to get through the day despite enormous obstacles, a kind of brilliance built around everyday survival that leads her to embrace this belief:

It would diminish those neighbors, making it all too easy to disrespect their potential, to say she was unique, or more gifted, or somehow a prodigy. She emphatically rejects that idea. To her, the only difference in what she is doing is the backdrop.

Many children, Joanah argues, would respond to the same chance. Begin with her parents, who provided both a fierce standard for excellence and raised her within the folds of St. Luke’s, and with the siblings who encouraged or inspired her, and then with the missionaries and volunteers who offered love and structure at moments that might stagger a child without support.

Betros, for instance, recalls times when the young Joanah — who always had a certain fire to her personality — would reach a place where some frustration or obstacle at home or school caused her to step back and insist she wanted to give up.

[ALSO BY SEAN KIRST: St. Luke's mission co-founder recalled as "example of Christ"]

“We’d tell her there’s no quitting,” Betros said. “Whether it was schoolwork or Scrabble or Yahtzee or whatever, we’d say we’ll stop today and get a breath and then we’ll pick it up tomorrow, and then, always, we’d come back and finish.

“You ask me the key, and this is it: She loves to read. Get someone to read, to learn to finish a book, and they’re all set.”

Taheri, who has watched her blossom, said “the gifts that she has are meant for high places.” Joanah, for her part, is not ready to predict exactly what path she will follow. She intends to figure out a direction as she makes her way through law school, behind the driving belief that every step forward only reaffirms what countless others from a hard place might achieve.

If she wakes up filled with wonder and feels a need to voice those dreams?

Her phone will be nearby. And in that way, so will her sister.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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