It’s no small accomplishment to be indispensable to your community. That’s true of Catherine Peery, who has spent years working to make Pescadero a better, healthier, more resilient community. But to hear her tell it, it’s Pescadero that was indispensable to her.
Peery has a lot of appellatives. She is a mother, a community organizer, a philanthropist, an affordable housing warrior and a ham radio operator. She has wire-rimmed glasses and a plainspoken manner. She runs one of the most well known companies in town, Peery & Associates, which does pension administration. She is on the board of the Pescadero Foundation and KPDO, a Pescadero radio station she is working to revive with a new, $56,000 grant from San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley’s office.
She is also a close friend of Puente and makes recurring monthly donations as a member of Puente Partners for Sustainability. When Puente does its back-to-school backpack drive each year, students can always count on 50 scientific calculators from Peery & Associates.
Peery discovered Butano Canyon, a redwood enclave outside Pescadero – “heaven,” she says, “God’s gift to the world” – on Memorial Day weekend in 1989 during a road trip with her late husband. They left Fremont and moved to “the Butano,” as it is locally known, just two months later with their children in tow.
“The Coastside was a lot less expensive in those days,” recalls Peery. “And the kids just thrived.”
It was a time of joy. But it wasn’t long before Peery was struck by all the things the South Coast lacked: a political voice within San Mateo County. A plan to address seasonal flooding from Pescadero Creek. A sewage plant. Affordable housing for teachers and the farm workers she saw in the fields who were living in lean-tos and barracks or sometimes, without a roof over their heads.
Peery found common cause with Carol Young-Holt, the “fairy godmother” of Puente. Young-Holt helped found the South Coast Collaborative in 1997 to leverage county services and private funds to address the needs of Pescadero’s least fortunate residents. Their vehicle was a nonprofit called North Street Community Resource Center, which formally merged with Puente in 2007.
Peery joined the Pescadero Municipal Advisory Council, which leverages the county’s support to solve problems on the South Coast, and served as chair for 8 years. She teamed up with Lynne Bowman, another local, to push for the construction of new houses on a vacant site west of downtown Pescadero.
It’s not just farm workers who can’t afford to buy homes, she explains. It’s local teachers, too. But Peery and Bowman kept running into walls.
“There’s no political will to build affordable housing here unless it’s downtown. But unless we get a package wastewater treatment plant, it’s not going to happen,” she says.
Puente is in the midst partnering with the County to conduct a survey of local farm worker housing as a way to quantify just how much affordable housing is needed. The results may help Puente and its partners push for new housing.
“All the entities that have any influence out here need to work together,” she says. “Puente is a godsend to this community. They do so much.”
Peery shares Puente’s vision of a sustainable South Coast where the local economy does not rely on tourism, and includes sustainable growth. One of Puente’s central goals is to empower all local residents, Hispanic and Caucasian, to advocate for themselves and their children with the same can-do attitude Peery has displayed.
Peery has found common cause with Puente a number of times. In fact, Puente has often followed in Peery's footsteps . In 2012, the Pescadero Foundation used its “Educate to Elevate” initiative to give $900 to every graduating Pescadero High School senior that year who had a plan to go on to college. The Foundation ended up giving away $25,000 -- monies put aside for the youth when they entered kindergarten.
“Just about every kid in that class has gone on to college and moved forward in life,” says Peery.
Puente has its own college scholarship program called the Youth Bridges Award, which gives graduating seniors money for books and tuition. Any local youth who has earned a salary with Puente while in high school is eligible. Peery has been a devoted supporter of the program.
Peery’s desire to help local families may trace its origins back to her own upbringing in Pacifica. She grew up with a single mom and six siblings. They struggled to make ends meet, and Peery still remembers the people who pitched in and helped the family buy groceries and make payments.
The South Coast is only as strong as the people in the wider community who stand up for it. If strength itself is a factor, Peery might widely be judged a pillar of the community. But she resists this designation.
“The pillars of our community are immigrant families. They are very tight, very stable, very enterprising. We can’t ignore that they’re good people who deserve better,” she days.
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