Michael Perdomo-Melendez’s world was small until he lived for a month stuffed into an RV with five other people.
The 23-year-old had never left New York state until June, when he became part of a three-person team traveling cross-country with three producers to film an episode of the public television show “Roadtrip Nation.”
Born in Staten Island and raised in the Bronx, as a kid he got involved with the wrong crowd, spent two years in a juvenile detention center and never finished high school.
When Perdomo-Melendez was 18, he came to Menands to live with his mother, and when that didn’t work out, he moved to Safe Inc., of Schenectady.
The organization provides shelter and assistance for runaway, homeless and sexually exploited youth.
At Safe Inc., he said he was able to find focus. He got his own apartment and held down two jobs.
Perdomo-Melendez said he worked, sometimes as a volunteer, sometimes as a staff member, for nonprofits, including the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs.
“I loved it and I realized that’s where I wanted to be,” he said during a recent interview at his Schenectady apartment. “I wanted to be working with people who have been through the same struggles as me.”
He set his sights on becoming part of YouthBuild Schenectady, a program that helps at-risk, low-income youth complete their high school education and get career training.
Jennifer Lawrence, executive program director for YouthBuild at the time, said Perdomo-Melendez applied to the program several times and was refused because staff determined he wasn’t ready.
“He was very persistent. Every time he had feedback he continued to work on himself and take the feedback. He had the persistence and he came through this last time, and he just knocked it out of the park and he was ready,” Lawrence said.
While part of the YouthBuild program, he got his GED and was certified in green construction.
“I wanted to be part of anything that YouthBuild was doing. I wanted to make a name for myself and I also wanted to be a positive influence on the community,” he said.
YouthBuild staff suggested he try out for Roadtrip Nation’s Opportunity Youth Roadtrip team.
Every summer since 2001, Roadtrip Nation has sent a group cross-country in a big, green RV to interview inspirational leaders from all walks of life.
Perdomo-Melendez was one of three out-of-school and out-of-work youth chosen from across the country to participate in the Opportunity Youth road trip.
The Roadtrip Nation crew came to Schenectady in June to film a documentary on him.
“They recorded the whole downtown, the park. I brought them go-carting,” Perdomo-Melendez said.
The whole idea of the trip was to introduce the road-trippers to people who had overcome adversity to have satisfying careers, and to empower participants to explore who they are and what they want to do with their lives.
“It’s not the goal to get them to meet celebrities, but meet people they connect with,” said Willie Witte, Roadtrip Nation’s director. “What we did this summer was try to connect them with people who were successful in all different industries from all different backgrounds.”
Perdomo-Melendez had some input into whom he wanted to interview during the trip.
“I guess I was aiming too high,” he said, then reconsidered. “Actually, I wasn’t aiming too high. I wanted to [interview] Michelle Obama, but her schedule was too busy and you’ve got to book, like, years in advance.”
He was able to line up interviews with Los Angeles Lakers trainer Gary Vitti and entrepreneur Chris Gardner, whose autobiography, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” was made into a 2006 film starring Will Smith.
On June 28, Perdomo-Melendez hopped a flight to Los Angeles to begin the trip.
He and fellow road-trippers then traveled a total of 4,500 miles by RV, from California to New York, stopping to interview people along the way.
Talking to leaders across the country, Perdomo-Melendez said he learned “you should celebrate your failures, and don’t be intimidated by those who are smarter.”
Witte watched as Perdomo-Melendez expanded his horizons.
“What I saw was his eyes got opened up to how big the world really is, not just outside of New York, but just outside of his perspective of what he knew. It was discovery around every corner, just learning what was out there,” he said.
Traveling across the country as a star of a TV show wasn’t as glamorous as people might imagine, Perdomo-Melendez said.
“Try to sleep in an RV in Nevada. That was pretty bad, like Las Vegas, 106 degrees. If we wasn’t at a KOA Campsite, we couldn’t use the AC, the generator or nothing, because then the battery would die and stuff. It was pretty tough, but we managed,” he said.
The trip inspired him to continue his education in California. He left in late August for Orange Coast College, where he’ll pursue a degree in business administration. His aim is to someday own a business that will be a vehicle for positive social change.
“Fifty percent of the profit I want to go to a nonprofit that caters to ‘opportunity youth,’ because a person like myself, when I was very young, I didn’t have too much opportunity in my neighborhood,” he said.
Roadtrip Nation’s Opportunity Youth Roadtrip episode will air on public television in November or December.