Chatham CIS’ Perla Ayala set to take dream job

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SILER CITY — When Siler City resident Perla Ayala was younger, her family often encouraged her to consider three specific careers. Her older sister suggested nursing or cosmetology, while her father suggested law.

Ayala rejected each option every time.

“I didn’t want to do anything that was related to nursing or cosmetology,” she said. “I felt like that was not me. That was not my personality. I’m like, ‘ ... I want to dress nice. I want to dress like an executive.’”

Neither, she added, did she want to “defend people who have done bad things.” Instead, Ayala wanted to be an accountant — just like her father had studied to be in Mexico before coming to the U.S.

“I feel like I got it from him. I mean, I love numbers. I’m good at math,” she said, adding, “I just fell in love with accounting.”

Now, Ayala has just about fulfilled her childhood dream: this summer, she’s set to become the chief operations officer (COO) of Communities In Schools of Chatham County.

“I’ll be doing the accounts and their office work,” she said. “Basically, we’re in charge of payroll and benefits and of obtaining the grants.”

Ayala, 28, was born in Othello County in Washington State, but grew up in Siler City. In Washington, her father had worked in agriculture, picking apples and grapes, among other things. Though he’d studied business administration in accounting, he ultimately decided not to pursue it after immigrating to the U.S., Ayala said; he didn’t speak English and needed money to support himself and his family. In 1994, two years after Ayala was born, he and his wife moved to Siler City, looking for better jobs and better pay.

Ayala’s parents, both from Veracruz, soon found work in the Townsend chicken plant. After it closed about a decade ago, they moved over to Pilgrim’s Pride in Sanford.

“My parents said it was rough growing up,” Ayala said. “They didn’t want us to work in a chicken plant. That’s what they told us. They were like, ‘Obtain your education.’ My mom would say, ‘Follow your dreams and go to school, so you don’t have to work at a chicken plant and one day (you can) be somebody.’”

That’s what she did: Ayala attended Siler City Elementary and Chatham Middle School and in 2010, she graduated from Jordan-Matthews High School. There, she found and cultivated her passion for accounting.

In middle school, Ayala took a career aptitude test, which indicated her skills fit a certain range of careers based on her personality — a range that included accounting. That stuck with her, and in high school, she found herself taking an online accounting course.

“It was interesting,” she said. “They told me about accounting, their debits and credits, and then accounts and how business works. I was like, ‘I really like this.’”

A mentor also encouraged her to obtain her Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation, which is a license that would allow her to work in public accounting, such as tax preparation. It’s not required to work for private companies, but it “comes in handy here in my position,” Ayala said. It’s her “last goal” and one she plans to tackle in the future.

In 2015, Ayala graduated from Central Carolina Community College with an associate degree in accounting.

It was hard to achieve, she remembered, but several counselors helped her fill out the required forms to attend. To help pay tuition, she went to school (at CCCC’s Sanford campus) in the morning from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., completed what homework she could and then worked part time at a gas station from 4 p.m. until midnight.

After a year’s break, she signed up for online classes with Strayer University and graduated in December 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and concentrating in accounting.

She was the first person in her family to graduate from college, which she said made her and her family proud.

Ayala was working as a manager at Kimbrell’s Furniture when she decided to jump-start her accounting career with the support of her husband, Dennys Enrique Ayala Jimenez, whom she’d married shortly after graduating from high school.

“My husband encouraged me to proceed (with) my dream in accounting,” she said. “He’d be like, ‘You’re already graduated. What are you waiting for?’”

Ayala worked long hours at Kimbrell’s, often until 8 p.m., and had little time to do the kinds of things she wanted to do — such as volunteer in the community, as she’d done with the Hispanic Liaison and Chatham Together (the predecessor of Chatham’s Communities In Schools) in her teenage years. It was time to leave, she decided.

A friend told her about a new accounting position with CIS, but she hesitated initially. She thought she’d begin her career in a bigger city, like Greensboro. After learning more about the position and the organization it served, however, she was sold — and promptly applied.

“They’re passionate about kids, and I like that. I was a kid once,” she said. “It would be a great thing to be a great model for these kids, and to see them go to school, finish high school and then obtain their college degrees.”

After all, that’s what she wants to provide her own two young children — her son Lenny and daughter Karlette — more than anything: a great role model who’s always pushing them to reach higher.

“I just want my son and my daughter to be better than I am,” she said. “I just want to make it as high as I can so they can ‘over-achieve’ that, and I am hopeful that when they grow up, they will become better than I am.”

That, she said, was what her own mother always told her.

After an interview, Ayala landed that position at CIS and left Kimbrell’s on Jan. 8.

CIS’ outgoing COO, Pam Johnson, said she’s excited that Ayala will succeed her. The COO’s role is “to be the servant leader of the program staff,” Johnson said, and Ayala has all the necessary skills.

“What I’m most excited about with Perla is that she is a young person from this community, who as an adult wants to give back to the community,” Johnson said, adding, “For a person in my age range, who was in this county when this agency was founded ... to see the young people that are interested in keeping this going, it’s deep in my heart. It means so much that that’s happening.”

Crucially, she added, Ayala has children of her own in the county school system. (Her son Lenny attends Siler City Elementary.)

“That is such an important connection in this work because when you’re out there talking to friends and moms at your gatherings and things, you bring some of that knowledge into this position,” she said, “and you can be a stronger staff person because of it.”

Right now, Ayala’s training for her new role with Johnson, who’s retiring after the end of CIS’ fiscal year on June 30. Johnson will remain on staff part-time after July to help Ayala out.

“Every quarter changes, so she’s trying to prepare me for this half of the fiscal year, which was from January to June,” Ayala explained, “and then she’s going to stay a month to help me and transfer the books from July to December.”

So far, working with CIS, Ayala said, doesn’t even feel like working at all; rather it feels like she’s volunteering her time for a cause she supports. There’s a saying, she said: Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

“That’s how you know you have your perfect job,” Ayala said. Then she smiled. “I think I’m there.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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