"I want to matter more."
For Johnne Perez, it all began with this vague sentiment. The Los Angeles-based musician has long been the nexus for a merry, at times hedonistic community of friends and artists; where he goes, adventure usually follows. Yet he'd been yearning to get more involved in humanitarian efforts for some time. "I drove around picking up stuff people wanted to get rid of and driving it to shelters – that was pretty much the extent of my work," he recalls.
But on his way home from a debauched week at the desert festival Burning Man, Perez heard about the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and decided to take action."It just really hit me," he explains. "I'd been trying to get to Nepal and India to do relief work for the past few years, but here were people in desperate need in my own country. I'd been to Biloxi, Miss., on tour. I was driving an RV because I was coming back from Burning Man, and I thought, I could be driving a truck full of relief supplies." And so he eventually did. Throwing himself into disaster relief, he also made a documentary film, "Biloxi," and has since expanded his humanitarian efforts considerably.
When he got back to L.A., Perez wrote a check to the Red Cross and offered his services to a local church, but his calls weren't returned. Then he received an e-mail soliciting help loading trucks bound for the Gulf. "I got this woman Patricia's number and I kept pestering her with voicemail," he remembers, laughing. Patricia returned his call and invited him to load trucks at L.A.'s Raleigh Studios.
Perez arrived at 7:00 a.m. and found that Patricia was actress
"We felt like the Blues Brothers – on a mission from God."Patricia Arquette (pictured above at Perez' left), who was overseeing the loading efforts (and ordering more supplies) between takes of her TV series, "Medium." "It was great to see that kind of energy, especially from a celebrity," marvels Perez, whose experience as a Hollywood production assistant helped him direct volunteers and efficiently load provisions for 12 straight hours. But he wanted to do more.
"At the end of the day I thanked Patricia for everything she'd done, and she thanked me," he reports. "I put the word out that I wanted to drive a truck, and I knew if I got one I'd have friends to drive with me. I said, 'Just send me to the hardest-hit areas, where people need help the most.'"
Within a week Perez was piloting a triple-axle film truck jammed with supplies, sharing driving duties with two pals and sleeping in shifts on a mattress in the back. Arquette and her team had procured canned goods, pasta, baby food, water, diapers, toiletries, condoms, wheelchairs, crutches, bedding and other necessities from an array of sources. The vehicle was woefully overloaded and blew out three tires on the way to Mississippi. "It was literally 10 tons of stuff in a five-pound bag," Perez notes sheepishly, "and I probably should've gotten a Class C license. But we felt like the Blues Brothers – on a mission from God."
Arriving in East Biloxi, which is populated largely by Vietnamese immigrants who make their precarious living as shrimp farmers, Perez was horrified. "These communities were poor to begin with, and now they've been completely demolished," he relates. "They also had a high level of illiteracy; we take our ability to read and write for granted, whether it's filling out a form or reading instructions on a tent or whatever." The economic disparities were glaring. "It's economic warfare," he insists. "The casinos bring in $200 million, but there's no school in East Biloxi; the high school had been closed down. There was no free clinic. The first time many of these people had ever had a chance to see a doctor was after the hurricane, because three free clinics popped up in the three-mile radius."
The trucks were parked at a Vietnamese temple, where 50 people had waited out the worst of the storm huddled in the attic, with water at their ankles. Miraculously, they all survived, despite severe damage to the temple. "But," Perez points out, "this big statue of Quan Yin, the goddess of compassion in Buddhism, was right there in one piece, her arms in prayer, surrounded by destruction and debris."
Perez helped the relief workers set up a free "store" in a giant tent, where residents could pick up food, paper goods and even toys.
Once he returned to L.A., Perez got to work editing the footage that would become "Biloxi." "People need to know what's happening, because it's worse than ever," he points out. "The second wave is even harder than cleaning up. I'm hustling to get this movie done and get it out there." It will most likely be submitted to film festivals, though he's open to any means of dissemination that raises awareness. For Perez, the film is not just a chronicle of disaster; it's a documentation of hope. "It's about the power of volunteers in the face of disaster," he ventures, "and how individuals can make a difference."
Perez had earlier discovered an extraordinary role model in Janice Belson, the indefatigable founder of Medicines Global; the organization urges "adventure travelers" to bring vitamins, bandages, antibacterial solution and other vital supplies to the farthest reaches of the globe. After helping her load bags and providing other local assistance for years, Perez finally seized the opportunity to join MG on a relief mission to El Salvador, bringing aid, comfort and music to people uprooted by a volcanic eruption. "El Salvador is the poorest country in Latin America," Perez reports. "The gap between rich and poor is enormous. The majority of the population is making $3.00-4.00 a day, but sneakers in the mall cost $100. All you hear about in the U.S. is the gangs." One of the organization's contacts was an atypically civic-minded wealthy family. "Here I was, hanging out with the wealthiest family in El Salvador in a bulletproof car, and two days later I'm in the back of a pickup truck in the most dangerous part of the country, a Code Red volcanic activity area, with a camera across my back and a huge bag of antibiotics and prenatal vitamins. We go to these shelters where women and children are staying because they've been displaced. By figuring out a way to help them and making it happen, my world has gotten so much bigger. I can't begin to communicate the rewards of it."
Best of all, he entertained a gaggle of Salvadoran children, finding he could create a dance sensation with a few chords. "The grandmothers came up and hugged me," he remembers. "They didn't speak any English, but just with their eyes and hearts they were saying, thank you for bringing joy and laughter to our children in a time when things are so shaken up. I drove out of there in the back of a pickup truck with kids running after the truck, slapping my hand and waving at me. I felt like the biggest rock star ever. I mean, that was a gig!"
Perez is currently director of Medicines Global's Outdoor Youth Ambassadors Program (MGOYA); his duties include visiting high schools and challenging students to get involved. The program recently brought a group of students from Jordan High (in the South Central L.A. neighborhood of Watts) to see the acclaimed "Ashes and Snow" exhibit in Santa Monica. The students were then given cameras (courtesy of sponsor Samy's Camera) and asked to photograph the natural beauty they saw in their own environment. "Ashes" artist Gregory Colbert agreed to judge the contest. Several prior youth ambassadors have gone on to college and then returned to recruit new participants. Other sponsors of the Youth Ambassador program include Whole Foods, Keen Shoes, Outdoor Industry, Eagle Creek and Patagonia; Perez says the organization is always looking for more.
Though he has recently been focused on releasing a record (with his electronica-rock collective Eighty Eighty Eights), Johnne Perez looks forward to many more relief missions. For him, it all boils down to finding a way to matter more. "You step out of yourself," Perez muses, "and the spectrum of the world opens up."