By Luke Jackson
Erick Lopez Pereira, who was a senior on the boys' varsity soccer team at the International High School at Langley Park this fall, was named the U.S. Army Impact Player of the Month.
IHSLP assistant principal Daniel Sass, who is Pereira's soccer coach, academic adviser and former English teacher, nominated Pereira for the honor.
"He is the type of young man that does everything you want him to do on the field and everything and more that you want him to do off the field," Sass said. "He has overcome so many challenges in his life. Any time he's faced with a hurdle, he figures out a way -- either over or around that hurdle. It's been so much fun to watch him grow as a student-athlete, as a young man, as a person."
Located in Bladensburg, Md., IHSLP first opened for the 2015-16 school year with a focus on educating students who recently immigrated to the United States. After Pereira heard about the school from a friend, he rode his bike to IHSLP on a cold, rainy day in January 2016 to find out more about the school and talk to administrators about the possibility of attending. Administrators heard his backstory and admitted him to the school, where he began as a student that month.
Born in El Salvador, Pereira lived with his stepfather before moving to the U.S. when he was 14 years old. He lived in the Langley Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., but didn't have a stable home. He didn't know English. He wasn't properly fed or clothed. Drugs, which were a part of life in El Salvador, surrounded him yet again.
Pereira left El Salvador with the hope of building a life with his mother, but it didn't materialize that way.
"Being in El Salvador was hard, but then I came here and it was harder," Pereira said. "And looking at myself in the mirror and saying, 'This is what you have become and this is what you want for your life?' I asked myself that question many times. Like, this is what you want? All the time, it was the same mindset. It was 'No, I don't want this for my life.' So then I think, what can I do different? What can I do to improve my situation? How am I going to get out of here? What is the next step?"
The next step for Pereira was IHSLP, but his first calendar year at the school was uneven. He was absent or late 21 times during the first three months of his sophomore year in 2016-17, according to Sass. When he was at school, he often slept through classes. He became academically ineligible to play sports.
Administrators dug deeper into Pereira's situation and found he was living with a family friend, wasn't sleeping or eating regularly and didn't have a quiet place to do his homework. Pereira was adopted by the family of one of IHSLP's community volunteers in January 2017.
That helped Pereira complete what Sass called a "180-degree turnaround." Absences and late arrivals at school vanished. Pereira continued learning English with the help of a summer language camp. He became a leader in extracurricular programs, like the Student Government Association and varsity soccer.
A permanent home certainly aided his development as a student, but becoming comfortable with his identity helped as well, according to Lesly Lemus, a social worker at IHSLP.
"Finding himself and really being able to say, 'I experienced this. There were days that I didn't have any food. There were days that I didn't have a bed to sleep on, but I continued,' and using his story to motivate others," Lemus said. "I think sometimes I have seen with some students, they become embarrassed of their past. But he's kind of used it to not only motivate himself but motivate those around him."
Something else has motivated Pereira, too.
"I guess my turning point was when I start hearing about college," Pereira said. "Because before I started hearing about college, my mentality was, 'You graduate high school and then get a job,' ... But then, I heard about college. And then I started [to say], 'What is college?' Like, what is it going to take me?"
College became one of Pereira's chief goals, and now he's looking at Skidmore, McDaniel and Hood College, among other schools. He wants to study business and economics, but he said he'll be open-minded once he arrives on campus. He wants to play soccer in college, too.
Pereira was a starting midfielder for an IHSLP squad that went 14-3 this year and was the top seed in the South region of the MPSSAA 1A playoffs. After a first-round bye, IHSLP defeated its next three opponents by a combined score of 15-1 to win the region and advance to the state semifinals, losing to Loch Raven.
Sass said Pereira's high soccer IQ elevates the team.
"He plays as the wide midfielder on the right side, but he does so with a very defensive mindset," Sass said. "So this allows my fullbacks to play even further up the field and make runs into the middle because they know that Erick will always be covering on set pieces or long balls into the corner. I think it's very easy for high school kids nowadays to focus on goals. … I think Erick finds a shutout to be just as sexy as a goal."
During his journey to becoming a college-bound senior at IHSLP, Pereira said he's learned about two things in particular: gratitude and love.
"The first thing: no matter what you are, no matter what situation you have, there is always going to be someone who's going to be in a worse place. So just be grateful for what you have," Pereira said. "And then my second thing is the impact of love in a person's life.
"… Without love, you just have that feeling of surviving. You have that feeling of, 'Oh my God, life sucks.' But then when you have friends and you have family and people who love you, it actually motivates you to keep moving up, and good for them. Good for them."