Inspired by gay dad, Utah student works to end bias
Cara Cerise has led her high school social-justice club, helped impoverished HIV-positive teens in Brazil and created an advocacy group for Utah children of gay parents.
And that's just in her first 20 years.
Cerise, who just finished her sophomore year at Westminster College, has been named the 2011 Utah Young Humanitarian by a panel of community leaders. The annual $5,000 college scholarship, funded by the George S. & Dolores DorÃ© Eccles Foundation, is the largest service-based award in the state, said Julia Wee of Youthlinc, the nonprofit group that manages the scholarship program.
"She stood out above the rest," Wee said. "Cara's service leadership, which spans the last five years of her young life, is consistently focused on inclusion."
This weekend, Cerise is volunteering at the annual Utah Pride Festival, an event that supports the Utah Pride Center's programs for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. She is helping to launch a new women's health campaign called the Bra Task Force.
Cerise and her younger sister were raised by their father, a single gay man, after he and their mother divorced. Cara Cerise was 4 years old at the time.
Growing up with a gay dad and, for several years, two dads when her father was in a long-term relationship sparked Cerise's interest in human rights. She noticed some friends did not come back to her house to play after their parents saw two men answering the door. And parent-teacher conferences became awkward when it was clear a teacher expected to meet Cerise's mother, not her gay dads.
"From a really young age, I realized that my family is different and sometimes I get treated differently because of that. â¦ My activism stems from not wanting anyone else to experience that," Cerise said. "I felt like I was the only person in the world with a gay parent."
After she attended the Inclusion Center's Camp Anytown, a youth leadership summer camp, Cerise decided to do something about that feeling of isolation. In an online search, she found COLAGE: Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere. At age 16, she formed a Utah chapter.
She quickly discovered she was not alone. Between 10 and 20 kids, from elementary school to high school ages, came to the monthly meetings Cerise hosted at the Utah Pride Center.
"For the first time felt I like I was capable of making a difference and that I could use parts of my identity to help other people," said Cerise, who sees many benefits in being raised by a gay parent. "No matter what, discrimination kind of thrives in our society. Maybe it's just a matter of helping people cope with that and doing what I can to eliminate it."
At Highland High School in Salt Lake City, Cerise also led BOND (Building One New Dream), a club aimed at breaking down social barriers. After she graduated, she studied abroad in Paraguay for a year. There, she went to school full time and volunteered weekly at an HIV/ AIDS outreach and resource center across the border in Brazil.
After she returned, she used her new Spanish skills to translate HIV-prevention materials at the Utah Pride Center.
"She is extremely intelligent and passionate about social justice for all people," said Jude McNeil, director of the center's youth programs. "Since she was a young teenager, she's been a really positive role model for her peers."
Cerise also has been back each year to Camp Anytown, or the fall version called Global Leaders, as a counselor. She now serves on the board of directors at the Inclusion Center, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit that works to end prejudice.
When Cerise is not volunteering, she is coaching gymnastics, cleaning houses or baby-sitting to earn money for school. She carries around a day planner that has almost every hour scheduled nearly six months in advance, said her father, Kent Cerise. He has to remind her to pencil in some time for herself.
"She's always thinking of other people and the injustices that are happening," he said. "She's really inspired me to get off my own duff and to be more aware of what's going on in the community, to be more involved. â¦ She sets an example for a lot of adults."
About Cara Cerise
Age • 20
New title • Utah Young Humanitarian of the Year
Education • She just wrapped up her sophomore year at Westminster College, where she is studying sociology and Spanish.
Career plans • "I just want to continue to work with marginalized populations in the future and to help connect people with the resources they need in order to live happy, healthy lives."
Hobby • Yoga