Michelle Perri is a mom with all the responsibilities that come along with being a parent: driving her girls Hannah, 11, and Abigail, 5, to and from school, attending cheerleading practice, being active in her church, and working full-time. She also has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and so does her husband, Joe. However, she hasn’t let this define her or stop her from being an active role model and volunteer in the community of Lansing, Michigan. Perri has been the assistant at the Lansing Adult Degree Program (ADP) site with Northwood for about five years. She enjoys working alongside Program Center Manager Julie Hanna, and Admissions Advisor Todd Lake, who have become a great support group to Perri. According to Hanna, “Michelle is an integral part of the Lansing team. She supports two people, handles all incoming applications and is a data entry whiz. It was a real blow when she, too, was diagnosed with MS, but Michelle put up a fight and came back to work as quickly as possible. She gives us everything she’s got every day.”
Perri also loves the student interaction that comes with her job, adding she likes seeing Northwood students when she is out in the community. Perri is a student in the undergraduate program as well. Joia Collins, BBA graduate and current MBA student, said Perri helped make her transition from Lansing Community College to Northwood an easy one. Collins added Perri was able to quickly respond to her questions and they even had a class together, “Michelle provided exceptional service to me as a student at Northwood. I will be forever grateful.”
As a daughter of missionaries, Perri grew up in Japan and lived in Georgia as a young adult. When she was 18, her mother died of breast cancer and her father died in an accident about a year later. Before her father passed away, she reunited with cousins in Lansing, and ultimately made the decision to make the move to Michigan. At the age of 20, Perri (formerly McElroy) married Joe Perri, who had been diagnosed with a disease of the central nervous system while the couple was dating.
Michelle Perri was not diagnosed with the disease until 2010. Her main concern was their children. Knowing their girls may have an increased susceptibility to MS, she started them on a vitamin regimen to reduce their risk.
According to her doctor, Perri has a very unique situation: being both a patient and a caregiver. Joe Perri is in a wheelchair with limited use of his legs and takes medication daily, while Michelle Perri has “bad days now and then.”
“Do you think I’ll have a good, long life?” Perri asked her doctor, who assured her this would be possible with an early diagnosis and treatments to reduce the progress and severity of MS. She visits a local hospital monthly for an infusion treatment and has bi-annual check-ups at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“There’s always someone worse off than you,” said Perri, while sharing that one of her daughter’s cheerleading coaches is in a wheelchair. She is thankful she is still very strong. Perri has followed her daughter, Hannah’s, cheerleading team as a “Cheer Mom” for the past four years. It is important to her to be supportive of a sport her daughter loves and which helps her develop self-esteem. The team will be traveling to Virginia Beach for a national competition this year, so Hannah Perri will be busy raising funds for the trip through a bake sale, car wash, can drive, and other fund raising activities. “It’s important she works for her money,” said Perri, whose parents instilled a strong work ethic in her. She also learned it is important to give back to the community.
For the past two years, Perri and her older daughter have spent their Saturdays serving breakfast at Recovery Place Ministries in Lansing. This ministry and homeless shelter offers free meals to the homeless, lost, and hungry.
“We always need smiling faces to help. It’s been a blessing to have them,” shared Joe Staten, one of Recovery Place’s founding members, adding the Perris will stay after the meal to “hang out” and talk with their guests.
On Sundays, the Perri family plays an important role at Oasis East Lansing Church. According to Pastor Scott Hayes, “Joe and Michelle have been an amazing addition to our work at Oasis. They consistently push through their own personal challenges in hopes of helping others.”
Michelle Perri coordinates the childrens’ programs, while Joe Perri oversees curriculum development for some of the programs and has helped with the church’s marketing efforts by building relationships in the community. Hannah Perri helps with Hayes’ own children in the two to four-year-old room working with toddlers. “Abbie is hilarious!” Hayes commented on Abigail Perri. “She has one of those smiles that make you feel happy inside.”
Hayes described Michelle Perri as, “incredibly servant-hearted and loyal,” adding she has become someone he and his wife, Ericka, rely on both organizationally and personally. “Joe is the kind of guy who comes in and wheels around and talks to everyone. The entire Perri family has been a big part of the work at Oasis Church – it would be hard to envision it without them in it,” Hayes continued.
The Perri family has also participated in Lansing’s Walk MS for the past three years. This annual event raises awareness and funds for MS research, which makes the family feel less alone in their fight against the disease. Support from friends and family at the walk helps encourage them to never give up.
Others are taking a more direct approach to help support the Perri family. Family friend, Caryn Freed, started an online fundraiser via GoFundMe.com after Joe Perri spent three weeks in the hospital early in 2013. The fundraiser, Help Joe Walk, was developed to help the Perri family purchase Bioness®, electronic leg braces, which will enable Joe Perri to walk again. Freed also keeps the Help Joe Perri Walk Facebook page up to date by including other opportunities to help the family raise funds for the leg braces, provides updates on Joe, shares links on Lansing area MS events, and promotes the resources on National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s webpage.
“You can still do anything you want to do. You just have to learn how to overcome the situation,” said Perri. “It’s important to surround yourself with positive people who say, ’You can get through this.’” Perri feels blessed to have many people like this in her life, so no matter how down she may be one moment, she manages to still see the good side of things.
Perri added she and her husband have a great sense of humor, which helps them get through the challenges they face every day. She hopes to be a future spokesperson for MS, and said her girls give her strength. “Every day, we get up, and hope again,” Perri added.
I followed-up with Michelle Perri just before finishing her story. When I asked her about her weekend, at first her response was brief, “Lots of stress, falls and I thought about calling you and saying forget the story. I’m not that great of a person.”
As we continued the conversation, Michelle gave me a full update on how busy and stressful her weekend had been. Friday night, she cleaned her hair stylist’s house – in the middle of summer, with no air conditioning, in the exchange of getting her hair done the next day. While at the salon, she got a call Joe had fallen out of his wheelchair, so she rushed home to help out. Next, she picked Hannah up from a bake sale, and then helped get the family ready for a wedding and reception, which lasted until late evening. Joe woke up in the night not feeling well, so he stayed home from church the next morning.
“By the time I made it to church I was in tears, again, like every Sunday,” Perri said. Even with all the chaos in her life, she has an amazing ability to see the positive side of things, “I was able to close my weekend out on a good note by going out to dinner with some friends. They are the type of people who will let me have a pity party, but then tell me I can’t give up.”
- Nikki Gonzalez