Seven years ago in the wake of the tragic suicide of their son Angel, Monica and Johnnie Perez started an event they hoped would call attention to an epidemic of suicides and to help ease the pain of the family’s loss.
The Angel Perez Wings of Hope Show N Shine Car Show has exceeded expectations and after outgrowing the streets of Miami and Globe, is setting up at the Gila County Fairgrounds on March 25 and is expected to be bigger than ever.
Proceeds from the event will go toward a scholarship fund that honors Angel Perez, a Globe native son who took his own life in May 2015 at the age of 21.
“As a family, we all kind of missed the signs,” says Monica Perez. “It took us a long time to even understand suicide and depression. Looking back, we could probably see some signs, but at the time, we had no idea, never suspected, and it completely caught us off guard.”
Angel Perez seemed to be fine on the outside. The 2012 graduate of Globe High School had many friends and took pleasure in activities from car shows to sports to spending time with his newborn son, who is now eight and living with his grandparents.
In high school, Angel played football, baseball and was a wrestler. Everything in his life was not perfect, but he lived life with a smile that masked his inner turmoil. It was not until the day he took his own life that the people around him realized the toll his pain and sadness was taking.
“If you’re in a dark place, I think that you honestly believe the lies in your head, that you are a burden, you are not needed, nobody cares, you are alone, and the world is better off without you,” Monica says. “I really believe they think that, so they’re not going to reach out for help.”
Suicide rates have increased in recent years
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. Between 2000-2018, suicide rates increased by 30%, although there were slight dips in 2019 and 2020, the most recent data available.
In 2020, 45,979 people died at their own hands, about one death every 11 minutes, according to the CDC.
“The number of people who think about or attempt suicide is even higher. In 2020, an estimated 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.2 million attempted suicide,” the CDC website states.
Demographically, in 2020 suicide was among the top nine leading causes of death for people ages 10-64 and the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34.3. Rural populations and veterans have higher than average rates, as well as those in industrial occupations such as mining and construction.
In 2019, suicide cost the U.S. “nearly $490 billion in medical costs, work loss costs, value of statistical life, and quality of life costs,” but more than 90% of people who survived an attempt never go on to die from suicide, according to the CDC.
According to the Arizona Health Care Containment System, Arizona ranks 20th in the nation for deaths by suicide — 1,359 Arizonans died by suicide in 2020 — and it is the 10th leading cause of death in the state. On average, one person in Arizona dies by suicide every six and a half hours.
The biggest toll, though, is on the people who survive, the web of families, friends and loved ones left to wonder if there was anything they could have done to avert tragedy.
Finding meaning in the aftermath
The first Wings of Hope event took place in downtown Miami in 2016. Monica and Johnnie Perez chose September, Suicide Awareness Month, as a time to honor their son and raise awareness of the issue. They also established a memorial fund called the Angel Perez Wings of Hope Scholarship administered through The Pinal Mountain Foundation for Higher Education.
That first year, the Perez family dug into their own pockets to fund the scholarship and get the program started.
“It was so generous and a huge blessing on my life,” says Alyssa Dickson, the first recipient of the scholarship. “I really respect Monica and everything that she’s gone through and how she has turned something so negative and so difficult into something positive to help the community that she loves.”
Dickson did not know Angel directly, but as happens in small towns, there were many community connections between the two families. Her elder brother was a wrestler at Globe High School and her father was the wrestling coach, so the families knew each other through the GHS community.
The scholarship jump-started Dickson’s career, as she obtained her education degree from Arizona State University. She briefly taught at Miami High School, but has since moved to Flagstaff to pursue her master’s in education.
Suicide awareness is an important message, Dickson says, and she is glad there is an event to bring more attention to the problem.
“I think that our small community really needs that reminder that there’s help, and there’s resources,” she says. “It might be a hard time in your life right now, but it’s not always going to be that way. So many people are constantly comparing themselves and their lives to other people, and it’s not healthy.”
To date, the event has funded 49 scholarships in Angel’s name, according to Perez.
The event quickly grew and after a few years in Miami, moved on to downtown Globe to accommodate larger crowds.
“Now we’re moving to the fairgrounds because we’re out of room downtown,” Monica says. “Our first and second year, we might have had 80 or 90 entries, but we’re pretty much at 100 now.”
The show includes cars, bicycles and pedal cars, in addition to more than 40 vendors selling a variety of food and craft items.
The car show brings car club members from all over the state, including Detty and Jimmy Rodriguez, founders of the Redeemed Christian Car Club in Phoenix.
The couple has participated every year since Wings of Hope’s inception, and it has special meaning to them, as Detty is a K-8 school counselor and Jimmy Rodriguez has served the Phoenix Police Department for 22 years.
When Johnnie Perez reached out to Jimmy though, he did not realize there was already a Globe connection, as Rodriguez’ parents immigrated to Globe from Chihuahua, Mexico in 1968 to find a better life in Arizona. They moved to the Valley in 1978, but Rodriguez still feels connected.
Through his work as a police officer, Rodriguez has seen the pain those left behind suffer when a family member takes their own life. He has also seen his fellow officers struggle with the same issues.
“In my 22 years in law enforcement, I’ve responded to calls for service that was a suicide or suicide attempt, and no matter the means or the reason for it, it’s always devastating,” he says. “A lot of times we’ll find out maybe it was because of a relationship, finances, terminal illness, or maybe they did something that’s going to bring great shame. Unfortunately, they think that’s the solution.”
Detty Rodriguez has seen it in the youths she counsels as well.
“Anxiety and anger are definitely things that students struggle with,” Detty says. “I have even seen students as young as third grade have suicidal ideations. It’s definitely a concern right now.”
They see Wings of Hope as a way to turn tragedy into a positive for the community.
“You can’t find a more fitting name for the event, bringing hope to those that are lost or are hurting,” Jimmy says. “For them to take something so devastating, so tragic, and to turn it and what they’re doing now speaks volumes of them and their character.”
What’s on tap for 2023
To facilitate the move to the fairgrounds, the event has moved from its fall date to March 25, a date chosen because it is near to Angel’s birthday of March 23. Perez says the move was made due to the difficulty of scheduling around events like the Gila County Fair, but also thinks the weather will be better for the crowds that will show up.
In addition to the car show, there will be a cornhole tournament fundraiser taking place in Gilbert on March 4. This will be the third cornhole tournament for Wings of Hope, and is being organized by Renee Alcaraz and the Chief Development Officer for the American Cornhole League, Todd Kisicki.
Alcaraz’ brother-in-law is Angel’s godfather, so for her it is a family affair. She has also helped a good friend who lost a son to suicide during her time of mourning. Last year, Alcaraz raised more than $6,500 for the cause, according to Perez.
The tournament is taking place in the Valley in order to be closer to the “cornhole family,” and at a different time of the month so Monica Perez can attend the festivities.
“I incorporated cornhole to raise money,” Alcaraz says. “It started with about 30 people and in 2022 we did two tournaments, one up in Globe and one down here. It just grew and got bigger and bigger as more people got involved.”
Kisicki is donating his facility, Hole 9 Yards, and proceeds from the event that is expected to draw upwards of 200 participants. He started his cornhole odyssey nearly a decade ago establishing KB Kornhole games and was so successful he was able to quit his “regular job” as an instructor at Arizona State University to devote time to his passion.
Both Kisicki and his wife Erin, who was a social worker working with high school LGBTQ students, have worked within a community especially hard-hit by suicide.
“We both volunteered with organizations that worked with the LGBTQ community,” Kisicki says. “And we heard stories about those sorts of things and how suicide was always on the back of their minds.”
Alcaraz believes that reaching out to friends or family members who are suffering can make a difference, even if it’s something small to let them know they are not alone.
“My friend Susie Webster always says, ‘shoulder taps,’” she says. “You tap somebody’s shoulder and you say something nice to them and maybe that changes their day or their outlook.”
The tournament will open with a ceremony at 12:30 p.m. and will feature Monica Perez talking about Wings of Hope. There will be other speakers and a raffle, and when the beanbags start to fly, there will be prizes in three different categories, from competitive to casual.
The entry fee is $25 and sponsorships are available for $500 per board.
“If somebody can get an education that could not afford one, they have a chance for a better future,” she says. “If they can get an education, they’re not going to be stressed and they’re not going to have that burden on them later on in their life.”
To sign up or sponsor the event, go to the Angel Perez Wings of Hope 4th Annual Cornhole Tournament Facebook page or at www.hole9yards.com.
Wings of Hope will take place at the Gila County Fairgrounds on March 25 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will feature music by Neto and Imagine, vendors and activities for kids and adults. There will be a raffle with items from PlayStation 5, big screen televisions, pedal cars, and many other various prizes. The Kid Zone will include a foam party and other attractions.
Angel’s Aunt Lucia and Uncle David will have a booth selling churros and elote, as a “labor of love.”
“When you’re there the kindness and generosity is magnified,” Monica says. “There’s a whole spirit there. God really does something different every year.”
The show is sponsored in part by Edward Jones, Dallin Law and Azteca Glass but more are available to help fund the event.
For more information, go to the Angel Perez Wings of Hope Facebook page or Instagram at wingsofhopeshownshine.
For those experiencing a crisis there are resources available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255) or 988. Information and resources can also be found at www.azahcccs.gov/suicideprevention.
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.