Gerald Brown, the dedicated man behind Salt Lake City’s refugee community

Story and photos by KAYA DANAE

Gerald Brown, the assistant director of refugee services and state refugee coordinator at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, has lived a life dedicated to refugees.

Gerald Brown at his office in the Utah Refugee Education & Training Center at 250 W. 3900 South, Bldg. B.

Born and raised in North Carolina, Brown’s passion for humanitarian work began after college, when he spent two years working in Cairo, Egypt, developing programs for the YMCA. He then went on to teach English in Taiwan for a little over a year. When he returned to the U.S. he inquired about jobs that meshed with the work that he had been doing overseas. He learned about a refugee resettlement program in the U.S. that had started while he was out of the country. He got a job at its Houston location, where he says his real education began.

The first family Brown helped resettle was Cambodian. They arrived the same day Brown started his job. “There were four people in the family. A father, mother, baby and a little boy– the little boy was very malnourished,” Brown said.

A photo given to Brown when he left his job in Houston. The man holding the sign is the Cambodian refugee whom Brown hired. Photo courtesy of Gerald Brown.

“They had been at the Khmer Rouge forced labor camps. The father told me their story and I couldn’t believe it. They were almost starved to death, it was very, very brutal,”  he said.

Throughout the ’70s tens of thousands of Cambodians fled to the Thai border because of the ongoing civil war and U.S.- led bombings. Khmer Rouge was a rebel-political group that established makeshift camps along the Thai border where Cambodian refugees were living under awful conditions. About one-fourth of the 8 million Cambodian people were murdered or starved during this time.

Brown spent four years working as a refugee resettlement job developer in Houston, and established a relationship with the father. Brown ended up hiring him to work the night shift at the refugee welcome center. The family has gone on to own a home and live a happy, healthy life, Brown said.

“He taught me that people are very resilient. It’s possible to overcome horrible experiences and go on. This job has shown me what people are capable of,” he said.

Brown was later hired as the director of refugee resettlement in New York City, where he met his wife and lived for 13 years. He began working for Asylum Corp. in 1995 and led a project where he brought social workers into Haiti with a military operation. After four years he felt restricted by the position and left.

He and his wife moved to Kanab, Utah, where he worked remotely giving technical assistance to a resettlement organization in Washington, D.C. Through this position he traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he worked with a U.S.- vetting organization. He also traveled to Macedonia, where he worked to prepare refugees for asylum, and Croatia, where he conducted the UN’s initial interview for Bosnian refugees.

Rachel Appel, the volunteer coordinator for the Know Your Neighbor Volunteer Program, has worked closely with Brown and emphasized his breadth of knowledge on refugees. “If I ever have any kind of question, he has the answer. He knows the policy, the cultural aspect of working with refugees, the history of refugees in the U.S. — really just all-encompassing,” Appel said. “He’s got really strong relationships with refugees here in Salt Lake City. One of the refugees, Joe Nahas, once said to me, ‘That man’s got heart,’ which just perfectly describes Gerald.”

Brown said with a smile, “I think working with refugees has enriched my personal life. It’s hard to imagine the two (work and personal life) being separate.” 

Utah Refugee Education & Training Center, where Brown, Appel, and Dulal work.

Gyanu Dulal, the refugee center program coordinator at the Utah Department of Workforce services, was a refugee from Bhutan. He recalls Brown’s dedication to his work. “I was introduced to Gerald in 2008 by one of our community members. Since then I have a very good relationship with him. I have never seen anybody so dedicated, motivated and committed to help the refugees.”

Dulal continues, “In these nine years that I have been working with him, I have never seen him say this cannot be done. Every refugee here has access to his personal cell phone. He is willing to talk to anyone at any time to find help the best way he can.”

Speaking about the most challenging aspect of his job, Brown said, “The way they (refugees) have been treated is infuriating. It’s very depressing and it just keeps getting worse and worse it seems. And that’s hard. I’ve had a hard time working within bureaucracy. There’s always red tape when you just want to cut to it and get stuff done. But, you know, you do what you can do.”

Brown quickly turned to the most rewarding aspect of his job. “Knowing refugees,” he said. “I know several people that have come out of camp with nothing. They are totally shell shocked, and there is PTSD and you just wonder how in the world are they ever going to make it, and they do. It’s perseverance, you know? It shows you what people can be capable of.”

While working with refugees has benefitted Brown in his personal life, Dulal emphasized how Brown has benefitted the refugee community.

“His tireless and dedicated effort to the Refugee Resettlement Center has been so helpful for all refugee communities to get the support that they need. We have employment, treatment, education, everything here. And this is a hub for people to come and learn about refugees as well, so it is an integrating space. Gerald reaches out to individuals to come forward, learn about refugees, make friends with refugees, that way they understand each other and help.”

Pamphlets advertising resources available to refugees.

Becoming emotional, Dulal said, “Gerald is the man I have known, he’s the best person I have ever found in my life. If anybody has a heart for the refugees, and knows more about refugees than anyone, it’s Mr. Gerald Brown. I have never found anybody so willing and so open to help refugees.”

Brown stressed the importance of education – learning about the global refugee crisis and understanding the situations facing people who are forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution.“Refugee resettlement is incredibly important. These people are refugees by no fault of their own. If anyone deserves support, it’s refugees and asylees,” Brown said. The Utah Refugee Education & Training Center offers many volunteer opportunities.

The refugee experience: Integrating into American society

Story and photo by BLAKE HANSEN

Outside the Catholic Community Services building, refugees and others sit, waiting for help.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported in its “Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2017” that the number of people in need of resettlement for the calendar year will surpass 1.19 million. This number is the equivalent of the number of residents inside of Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties. The number of refugees in desperate need of relocation equals the same number of people who reside from Draper all the way through Ogden, a distance of about 60 miles.

Many refugees who have been granted relocation to America, specifically to Utah, have a hard time integrating into a vastly different society. But with help of local organizations it is possible to successfully integrate.

The trek out of danger is only the first step for refugees, though. According to various statements made by refugees in an article by The Independent, they arrive in these safe zones. Some are injured, starved, alone, scared and all have suffered extreme loss. They settle in refugee camps where conditions are horrible.

The process to get resettled somewhere can take years, according to the UNHCR. Some people spend the rest of their lives in refugee camps because the lengthy and intense resettlement process can’t even handle the amount of people left without a country to call home. Kids who grow up in these refugee camps have little to no access to education. Doctors and lawyers who were once able to comfortably use their education and expertise to take care of their families are left building their families tin huts just to stay dry. Also, 51 percent of refugees are under 18. Many have narrowly escaped, and are without parents or siblings.

Aden Batar left Somalia with a law degree and with two of his brothers in the late 1980s. At a time when civil war took over the country, Batar and his brothers had no choice but to leave. They had to lie and disguise themselves as members of other tribes and factions just to make it past checkpoints where people were being shot and killed for trying to flee. Batar made it to Kenya alone after one of his brothers was killed for being found at a checkpoint and the other died from a sickness he got during their trek.

“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it,” he said. Batar lived in a refugee camp in Kenya and met his future wife there before finally making it to Utah in 1994. He was lucky enough to have a brother in Logan who helped with his resettlement. Batar is now the director of immigration and refugee resettlement at Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City where refugees are helped and given the tools they need to integrate.

Atem Aleu escaped from Sudan in 1987. Similarly to Batar, Aleu also fled his country with two brothers. After a lengthy trek between multiple countries, Aleu eventually ended up in Kenya in 1992 with one brother after the other died during their trek. Aleu was 8 years old. Eventually though, after years of suffering through surviving with little food and water, none at times, Aleu made it to the U.S.

“We need to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Judgement happens a lot here, people think that because you’re a refugee, you’re some sort of lower person,” Aleu said. He said his organization, which he declined to name, .helps refugees locally in Utah. “Without these organizations in place there is no one to talk to and nowhere to go for help finding jobs, transportation, appropriate housing, etc.,” he said.

Integration is a difficult and lengthy process for refugees after they have already gone through so much just to get here to the U.S. The local organizations in Utah are always looking for volunteers to help in a variety of ways. Some options include mentorship and job placement. Batar also stressed the importance of overall friendly interactions to show a welcome, safe environment where refugees are able to flourish in a new place with opportunity.


Utah Dream Center proves helping goes a long way

Story and slideshow by MELANIE HOLBROOK

Explore the Utah Dream Center

“Our dream is to see you live yours.” That is the slogan of the nonprofit organization Utah Dream Center, which was created to help community members fulfill their dreams.

Whether starting an arts program or a private elementary school, the organization located at 1624 S. 1000 West helps people get started so that more individuals can be assisted in the long run.

In 1998 husband and wife Alfred and Anna Murillo traveled to Los Angeles for a short-term mission project. Already involved with servicing their community, the Murillos brought with them 40 boys and girls to help out at one of the Los Angeles Dream Center’s programs.

Amazed by that center’s goals and projects, such as its after-school programs that provided activities for kids, the Murillos became inspired and knew Salt Lake City needed its own Dream Center.

In January 2000, Alfred and Anna launched the Utah Dream Center, modeled after the one in Los Angeles. With no help yet, the Murillos traveled throughout the U.S. in search of ideas and help from anyone interested.

With creativity and a U-Haul, the Murillos began to follow their dreams in June 2001. With the back of the U-Haul used as their stage they pursued after-school programs for any Glendale-area neighborhood kids who were interested in participating. Starting off simple, boys and girls could come hang out at the U-Haul after school for food and games.

With that, word spread fast. In February 2002 their U-Haul had become their very own facility that they still use today.

With their name already in the public, the Utah Dream Center was able to serve more than 400 kids in the first year.

“People had heard about what we were doing and wanted to get involved. People want to help out and contribute to making something of their community,” Alfred said in a telephone interview.

Over the years the Utah Dream Center has added at least 200 volunteers to their family. Alfred explained that there isn’t a payroll; the organization functions off the work of volunteers.

The Utah Dream Center stays running and thriving through its donors, volunteers and other sources that want to be a part of it. Out-of-state churches and businesses that have heard of the organization will send in donations.

Alfred explained that they’ve never purposely been in the news. The organization doesn’t believe in soliciting or asking people for contributions; people hear about the organization and want to donate.

“We work on helping kids around us, we’re not trying to make a big uproar,” he said.

“The other day I was getting my oil changed and during those 15 minutes we (the employee and I) started talking about what I do. He didn’t charge me for my oil change and handed me $250 because he wanted to help,” Alfred said.

He said it’s the goodness in people and their mentality that keeps their organization going.

Donations to the organization are given in various ways. Alfred said when he took his daughter to the dentist he again got to talking about his work. After listening, his dentist told him to bring kids in and he will work for free. Over the past eight years Alfred has taken in three kids while his dentist has put in thousands of dollars of service just so he can help others.

“Our dream is to see your fulfill your dream. We’re not asking you to make ours. When you help people it spreads a mentality, you want to help people when you’ve been helped,” he said.

Utah Dream Center has four programs in the Glendale area. Those programs are the Arts Academy, Open Door, Provisions for the Ministry and Mobile Medical. A director who came to the Murillos with his or her idea started each program. After discussion of their idea, the Murillos helped them get it started.

“The Open Door is held every Monday night. We’ll have chunks of different segments; half an hour for free time, time for reading and tutoring. We feed them a healthy dinner,” Susanna Metzger said in a telephone interview.

Metzger, the director of the Open Door after-school program, said on average 40 kids come every Monday.

The Arts Academy lets kids engage in music such as piano, drums and singing. The program also incorporates painting and drawing.

“My daughter has been going to Arts Academy for two years now. She’s 8 years old and is so bright — I thank the program,” Gabriela Hardy said.

“Hobbies such as piano or painting can make a child so much more well-rounded and determined to learn and grow at a young age. It shapes them,” she said.

The program Provisions for the Ministries delivers food and donates clothing to various churches every Wednesday.

Mobile Medical is stationed in the U-Haul the Murillos used back in 2001. This program was established to help community members who can’t afford certain medical help. Having it in the U-Haul makes it easier to serve more people.

Hardy isn’t one of the only fans of the organization. Richard Williams, a donor to the organization, said his son isn’t old enough for any of the programs but wants to get him in them when he’s ready.

“I found out about Utah Dream Center through my brother and donated soon after. An organization that helps people succeed in things they want to do, why wouldn’t I want to support something so great?” Williams said.

But community members aren’t the only people who have heard about the organization and want to help out.

Kyle Korver, a former player for the Utah Jazz, became involved with the organization. Korver would give Alfred 30 tickets to every Jazz game for any boys and girls who wanted to attend.

Real Salt Lake presented Alfred and his wife with the “Heroes Among Us” honor at a sold-out game. In the middle of the field, the Murillos were given jerseys with their names on them.

Alfred said one of the greatest honors was when “Good Things Utah” surprised him and his wife with a big metal key that would unlock the door to their new office. Utah Dream Center will be on “Extreme Home Makeover” where the organization will be given an entirely brand-new office; the episode is set to air in summer 2012.

The Utah Dream Center has expanded to help those suffering with problems such as gangs and drugs. There are now locations in Ogden, Provo and Kearns.

“You never know where helping people can take you,” Alfred said.

Refugees learn at The English Skills Learning Center

Story and photo by NATHANIEL BINGAMAN

Imagine moving to a new country where you do not know the language and you do not have any formal educational experience. Even holding a pencil is new to some. This is the case for thousands of refugees every year. But, with the help of the English Skills Learning Center in Salt Lake City, these individuals are able to learn basic skills such as reading and writing in English.

Beth Garstka, the volunteer coordinator for the ESLC, said more than 16 million refugees live around the world and more than 1,100 come to Utah per year. These individuals come from countries such as Afghanistan, Egypt and Sudan. They are people suffering from war, natural disasters and famines. They come to America with the hope of freedom and improving their lives, but many of the refugees do not have a formal education.

The ESLC offices are located at 631 W. North Temple. It was originally called Literacy Volunteers of America-Wasatch Front (LVA-WF). Its founding member, Mary Hausen, formed LVA-WF in 1988. She was previously involved with an affiliate in Connecticut.

The organization’s first mission was to help improve literacy in adults and those learning English as a second language. In 2001, due to the rapid growth of refugees in the world and non-English speakers in the community, the organization focused solely on English as a Second Language.

The nonprofit organization is unique because it works with a student’s availability. “If they do not have transportation we will meet them at a library or church, anywhere that is convenient for them,” Garstka said.

Multiple class options are available to the students, including one-on-one classes and small group classes that have four to 10 students at a time. Many students participate in classes that prepare individuals to become United Sates citizens. There are even classes to help parents better communicate with teachers and enable them to read their child’s report card. Best of all, the classes are free.

Students have a good reason to come to class. “We teach the people what they want to learn, not what they don’t have interest in,” Garstka said.

The ESLC focuses on where the students are in their life. For example, if students want to drive so they can get to work, they will be taught to read the necessary books and learn writing skills so they can obtain a driver’s license. If they want to obtain United States citizenship, the ESLC will teach lessons pertaining to obtaining that goal.

Jose Amezcua participated in a program offered by the ESLC while in grade school.

“We teach people simple things like the alphabet or even the proper way to hold a pencil,” Garstka said.

The tutors are volunteers 18 years of age or older. These volunteers go through a 14-hour training session where they learn how to teach reading, writing, listening skills and speaking activities. No previous teaching or tutoring experience is required and individuals do not need to know another language because all classes are taught only in English. For those wanting to volunteer, the ESLC offers information on various volunteering opportunities.

“We have amazing volunteers who love being here,” Garstka said.

When the ESLC first began it had a program called “I Can Read” aimed at elementary students who were reading below grade level. The program was eventually adopted by the Utah State Office of Education and used in schools throughout the state.

“The ESL program helped me a lot,” said Jose Amezcua 29, who took ESL classes while he was in grade school. “Without it I would have had no friends and it would be hard for me to get an education in this country.”

Now a college graduate and an electronics salesman at a local Sears store. Amezcua is grateful for the ESL program and the help he received. “Without the classes it would have been hard for me to go to college and get a job,” he said. “Without a job it would be hard for me to take care of my wife and family,”

Learning a new language is difficult for almost everyone, but The ESLC helps make that transition a little easier.

Niños on skis


Twelve years ago the Rev. Bob Bussen, pastor of Saint Mary’s of the Assumption Parish in Park City, Utah, saw a divide in the community.

“I noticed that we had challenges in Park City embracing our diversity,” Bussen said. “I challenged the city that we needed to find ways to build bridges, noticing that I needed to do that as well.”

The result of Bussen’s challenge was the Niños on Skis program, which he envisioned as a way for Hispanic and non-Hispanic families and children to come together while having fun skiing.

The success of the program is due in part to the efforts of sponsor families who agree to ski with children who otherwise might not be able to enjoy the slopes of Park City.

In addition, Park City Mountain Resort, Aloha Ski and Snowboard Rental, and St. Mary’s provide equipment and services that make skiing free for children who participate.

Normally, a youth day ticket at the resort costs $50 while passes for Utah students between ages seven to 17 range from $175 to $225. However, the resort’s involvement with the Niños program lifts this burden.

“Park City Mountain Resort has just been fabulous because they give all our kids free passes and make it possible to do everything,” Bussen said. “Aloha we just kind of got to know and they got involved, too. St. Mary’s provides clothes through the St. Lawrence thrift store in Heber City.”

However, these opportunities did not always exist, and it has taken some effort to get the program where it is today.

“We live in this world-class resort and have many Hispanic families here,” said Ernest Oriente, the Niños on Skis program director. “Many of them were going back and forth to work or school every day looking up at these amazing mountains but never getting to experience them.”

Oriente became involved in the program 10 years ago after reading about it in a church bulletin. With Puerto Rican heritage on his mother’s side of his family, Oriente identifies with diversity and the need to extend opportunities to all.

“We must remember that we are a nation of immigrants,” Oriente said. “We are a melting pot of cultures.”

Starting out with eight children, the Niños program has consistently grown under Oriente’s direction. This year 51 boys and girls participated.

“Ernest and Father Bob collaborated on the program,” said Garrett Glenn, a Park City High School student who volunteers with the program. “Ernest is the director and does a lot of the work, and Father Bob is there to provide support.”

Niños on Skis enables children with minimal or no ski experience to eventually ski some of the most challenging terrain at the resort, such as runs off the Jupiter lift, which services black and double black diamond terrain.

“My favorite part of the mountain is King Con, but I’ve been up to Jupiter too,” said Martin Heredia, 9, who began learning to ski with the program two years ago.

The ability of new participants to rapidly improve their skills is due mainly to the structure of the program.

During the first three Saturdays of December, sponsor families pick up the children and bring them to the resort by 9 a.m. Half an hour later children are grouped based on skill level and experience with ski instructors who teach the children until noon.

After the free lessons, all of the children, instructors, and sponsor families converge at the bottom of the Payday lift and head to lunch at the resort center.

“It’s not unusual that lunch will run over $1,000,” Oriente said. “Lunch is paid for by St. Mary’s church and wonderful donations that are given to us by the community.”

When participants are filled up and warmed up, the sponsors take the children back out if they want to continue skiing into the afternoon.

“After the first three Saturdays it’s ski whenever you want and as much as you want with the children,” Oriente said. “The kids I have now, we’ve skied over 15 times with them already.”

Also, many times a boy or girl will be paired with a sponsor who is in middle school or high school, fostering new friendships.

Jessica Murphy, a 9th-grade student at Treasure Mountain International School, skis with Oladyd Angeles, a 2nd-grade student at Trailside Elementary School.

The two ski together throughout the season and Murphy further aids Angeles in learning better technique.

“I usually go in front and she follows,” Murphy said.

Angeles, who has lived in Park City her whole life, said she likes the mountains and that her favorite part of the program is getting to ski.

Another pair who ski together is the duo of high school student Garret Glenn and Martin Heredia, a 4th-grade student at McPolin Elementary School.

“I like the big jumps,” said Heredia, when discussing his favorite part of skiing. “But I’ve made friends, too.”

When skiing together, Glenn said he prefers to let Heredia lead as he watches from behind to make sure Heredia is OK.

“It’s a good program,” Glenn said. “I like to be able to ski with him and help him out, help him get a little more practice and experience.”

Although he is only 9, Heredia already has a plan for his skiing future.

“When I am older I will teach other people to ski, too,” he said.

These examples of service and friendship illustrate that the program is about much more than just skiing.

“In my opinion this program has gone on to become the most interconnected relationship between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic community that exists in Park City,” Oriente said. “This is more than a cursory event. This can be a 12-month relationship, an ongoing relationship that takes many shapes and forms.”

While the Niños program fosters these connections, St. Mary’s is behind other efforts to improve integration.

“We have Spanish masses, but we also have a bilingual mass that we do during Lent and Holy Week,” Bussen said.

He also said he has seen improvements in the school systems, healthcare services and with other programs such as the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program, the Boy’s and Girl’s Club and the tennis program that St. Mary’s helps run.

In fact, the children who participate in Niños on Skis can segue straight into St. Mary’s tennis program, Oriente said. It provides another opportunity for interaction and learning by allowing boys and girls to transfer from a winter sport to a summer sport.

It seems that the divide that once existed in Park City is being joined.

“You keep making steps, you keep making strides,” Oriente said. ” I don’t know about the rest of Utah, but I know that in my own world in Park City we care. In the Niños program we can’t touch 10,000 lives, but I know we can touch the lives of 51 children, and that for me means a lot. I know that in some small way we are making a contribution.”

Mike Thompson’s mission: To be a ‘change agent’


Imagine a beach covered with thousands of miles of starfish and an individual throwing them one by one back into the ocean. This is how Mike Thompson, executive director of Equality Utah, envisions his position. For him, it’s not about saving every starfish, it’s about making a difference to just that one. His personal mission is to be the “change agent.”

“I can’t change the world, but I can influence my part,” Thompson said about his career in Salt Lake City.

Thompson was born in Broken Arrow, Okla., in 1964, and received a bachelor of business administration in management and communication from the University of Oklahoma in 1986. After working for oil companies in Chicago and St. Louis for eight years, Thompson left the corporate world and joined a ministry training program for two years. Upon completing the program, he traveled to London to work with inner-city children and youth. It is there that he learned to work with his heart, not his head.

While using his spirit and compassion working as a nonprofit consultant in Denver, Thompson met a member of Equality Utah’s board of directors who encouraged him to interview for a campaign position in the summer of 2004. Thompson helped Scott McCoy, a state senator of District 2, raise $800,000 to say “no” to the “Don’t Amend” campaign. The constitutional Amendment 3 denied same-sex marriage. “It’s the passion of working on issues that resonates within me,” Thompson said about his responsibilities with the campaign. Although Amendment 3 passed in November 2004, Thompson’s leadership led him to be invited to interview for the position of Equality Utah’s executive director in August 2005.

Equality Utah was founded as Unity Utah in 2001 as a political organization. It became the political advocate for the LGBT community with the goal of creating “a fair and just Utah” and finding common ground with other members in the community. Equality Utah is part of three nonprofit organizations that share the same mission of “securing equal rights and protections for LGBT Utahns and their families.”

The Equality Utah Foundation educates and informs the community about issues impacting the LGBT community, while the Equality Utah Political Action Committee “endorses candidates and supports their campaigns with volunteer efforts and financial contributions.” Equality Utah strives to provide volunteer support to candidates who are “willing to be open-minded and create dialogue.”

When Thompson lobbies at the capitol, people first notice the “equality button” he is wearing on his suit, and then they simply walk away. He identifies this sort of bias as a major obstacle for Equality Utah. “It’s people assuming or stereotyping all the time that becomes frustrating in that you always have to prove credibility first,” Thompson said. “I need to be the whole of who I am and be treated equally regardless of who I am.” Thompson encourages the public to eliminate biases and “talk about the root of the issue.” He hopes that by reaching one person, dialogue about stereotypes and biases will lead to change.

Thompson believes that “people of faith have the biggest opportunity to support LGBT issues and Utah is where the social change needs to take place.” With that, he hopes to have point people in the 29 Utah counties to establish relationships and have Equality Utah be more of a presence in the state. Thompson says Equality Utah is successful because of its approach of building relationships. “We don’t have an activist approach; it’s about meeting people where they are,” Thompson said about the organization’s efforts to initiate conversations.

Through Thompson’s vision of effecting change, the Annual Allies Dinner, a fundraising event that benefits the Equality Utah Political Action Committee, has grown from 250 attendees in 2002 to 1,127 people this year. In addition, Equality Utah hosts “Out for Equality” events to promote membership and inform the LGBT community of available resources and current issues. “Anything we do socially has to have a tie to our mission,” Thompson said. With almost 1,000 members and an e-mail database with 10,000 supporters, Equality Utah is gaining influence in the community.

Equality Utah’s current starfish is working with municipalities to implement employment non-discrimination policies, which include both sexual orientation and gender identity, for their city’s employees. The policies aim to protect the rights of all people and create domestic partner benefits. “It’s about equal pay for equal work,” said Thompson. Although Salt Lake City voters approved this ordinance in March, Thompson hopes to introduce the issue in the 2008 Utah Legislature for a statewide ruling.

TEA of Utah


Teinamarie Nelson and Rebecca Wilder were having lunch one day and discussing an issue they heard about from the media regarding transgender people that they thought was unfair. The two women wanted to do something to help transgender people and those who interact with them so they didn’t make the news the same way. They decided to form a nonprofit organization but, it wasn’t until Christopher Scuderi came on board that things started moving.

Transgender Education Advocates, or TEA (pronounced “T”), was established in 2003 as a volunteer organization. It is an affiliate program of the Utah Pride Center and its mission is “to educate the public on transgender issues for better understanding and awareness of discrimination towards the transgender population.”

TEA offers a Gender 101 class, which aims to make people aware of individuals who don’t fit the binary gender system. Scuderi said 50 percent of the classes they teach are requested while the other half are through TEA’s outreach efforts. Because TEA doesn’t have an office of its own, classes are offered in the Utah Pride Center or at the organization receiving the training.

One group that received the Gender 101 training recently was the Public Safety Liaison Committee. PSLC is a group of individuals in service-related professions, including firefighters, police officers and EMTs that aim to educate those in their field about LGBT issues. Rachel Hanson of the Utah Pride Center and Scuderi conducted the training for PSLC, which lasted about an hour and half. Hanson felt it was a success because people openly talked a lot about biases and other subjects that came up during the presentation. Another good gauge for determining whether the training went well, is if participants feel free to ask questions. “I can often tell when people feel comfortable because they ask questions without worrying about sounding dumb,” she said. “A lot of people don’t understand transgender people.”

Gary Horenkamp, PSLC’s co-chair, said the training was “a well-organized, well-presented learning activity” with useful information that he hadn’t heard anywhere before. Horenkamp also is the project leader for OUTreach Ogden, which supports the “personal growth, acceptance and equality” of LGBTQ people and serves Box Elder, Morgan, Weber and Davis Counties. Gender 101 classes are available throughout the year, but TEA also hosts special events.

During November, TEA hosted a number of events in recognition of Transgender Awareness Month. For 2007 it brought in two speakers to provide workshops for medical and legal students and professionals. TEA also observes the Day of Remembrance annually on Nov. 20 with a candlelight vigil. The memorial commemorates transgender people who have lost their lives due to hate-crime violence.

Although it wasn’t a hate crime, Scuderi tells of an individual who was involved in a car accident that died because of a lack of understanding. When paramedics arrived they had to cut away clothing and when they discovered the genitalia of the victim didn’t match the rest of their appearance they were shocked. Apparently they laughed and poked fun but never helped, which resulted in the victim’s death. Some people have a hard time seeking medical help because they don’t know how they will be treated.

In the Salt Lake City medical community there are four family doctors who advertise that they treat transgender patients, but only one, Dr. Nicola Riley, is still accepting new patients. The others had to stop because their practices were too large. Riley received TEA’s 2006 award for Individual of the Year, while Equality Utah was given the Organization of the Year award for its work. Riley received this award partly because of her willingness to continue accepting transgender patients.

If a transgender person decides to have gender reassignment surgery, or GRS, they may have a difficult time finding a surgeon as well. Scuderi estimates there are a dozen throughout the United States, but none are in Utah. The closest surgeons are in Colorado, California or Arizona. Outside of the country, Thailand has the most GRS surgeons because of its progressive views regarding gender.

TEA’s 2007 keynote speaker, Dr. Marci Bowers, has a waiting list of 150 people. Her practice is located in Trinidad, Colo., which is the “transgender capital of the world” according to the city welcome sign. Born Mark Bowers, she transitioned later in life after marrying and having children although she had thoughts about becoming a woman by the age of 5. Bowers has helped more than 500 patients through this process and is considered a world-renowned surgeon. She has been a guest on “Oprah” and “Larry King Live.”

Locating a surgeon is just one challenge facing individuals. Securing funding also can be problematic. Many people can only afford changes from the waist up and can feel incomplete because of it. A few insurance companies cover GRS, but it has to be written into the plan. For male-to-female surgery, Scuderi estimates the cost ranges from $8,000 to $22,000. Female-to-male surgery costs considerably more: $30,000 to $150,000.

Because the costs are out of reach for many, TEA established the Cans For Change program. Aluminum cans are collected for recycling and the money goes toward a scholarship. The scholarship fund was developed to help with a portion of general reassignment surgery costs for an individual on a need basis. You can e-mail TEA to arrange a pick up of clean cans any time. While it has yet to raise enough to consider applicants, TEA hopes to have $1,000 soon for this purpose.

Due to confidentiality and stigma, few statistics are available on the transgender population. But Scuderi and Rachel Hanson believe the transgender youth population is growing. They think this is partly due to the media. Films such as “Boys Don’t Cry” and Barbara Walter’s segment on “20/20” bring exposure to the transgender community. Also, the Internet provides a forum for youth to discuss their lives and issues in a safe environment.

Hanson is the youth director at the Utah Pride Center and facilitates the transgender youth group that meets weekly. She said many transgender people are not receiving support from family or friends so they are at a higher risk for suicide and other self-destructive behavior than gay and lesbian youth.

Utah law doesn’t allow the promotion of homosexuality in schools. Hanson says that when they have approached schools to educate them they often shy away from the training because they’re afraid it’ll fall under the “promotion” of alternative lifestyles.

Scuderi says TEA has had conversations with two school boards. “We’ve contacted most of them, but they’ve either declined or haven’t returned emails or phone calls.”

On campus and elsewhere, the most obvious place transgender people encounter problems is the bathrooms. If a female has male genitalia and goes into the boy’s bathroom she’s more likely to have a problem than using a girl’s restroom.

Another place that is high risk for transgender people is correctional facilities. Currently when someone is picked up they are placed in holding cells based on their genitalia. Because their outward appearance is generally different than those their holed up with, they become easy targets for harassment or worse. Horenkamp said there was a senior officer from SLCPD at the Gender 101 training and he felt it was well received.

SLC drag troupe raises funds, morale


Forty-five-year-old Don Steward says he’s about as mainstream as it gets. The West Valley City resident has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in public administration, owns a small business and attends church every week.

“If I was an ice cream flavor I would be vanilla – probably sugar free,” Steward said. “I’m that dull.”

Perhaps it’s Steward’s dull home life that makes his charity work seem even more intriguing. He makes it a priority to stay active doing volunteer work, and has traveled across Utah and Wyoming mentoring nonprofit organizations. But it’s when he stuffs his 6-foot, 230-pound frame into a curve-hugging, polyester dress and 5-inch heels that his charity work appears the most vibrant.

Meet Ruby Ridge, Steward’s alter ego. He transitions into this bearded drag queen – brazenly outfitted with loud makeup, fluorescent hair and a sassy attitude – when he appears with the fundraising performance troupe, the Utah Cyber Sluts. As one of the about 10 rotating members in the troupe, Ridge performs improvisational comedy and lends herself to charitable events within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, such as Pride and WinterFest.

Most recently, the Cyber Sluts kicked off University of Utah’s Pride Week on Oct. 15, 2007, performing a colorful show for attendees free of charge. On Nov. 29, the troupe will doll themselves up in the finest Deseret Industries dresses and attend The Red Party at the Hotel Monaco to raise money for AIDS awareness. Just one night later, they will unveil their Christmas performance “Cyber Night, Slutty Night, What’s in Your Stocking?” at the Paper Moon.

But perhaps the Cyber Sluts’ most famous fundraising effort is Cyber Slut Bingo. Each month, the merry bunch hosts a different-themed game night in order to raise money for the Utah Pride Center.

“The Pride Center has had a partnership with them for couple of years now, and one amazing thing about the Cyber Sluts is how much they do for charity,” said Jennifer Nuttall, the Center’s adult-program director. “Initially, the Center was having difficulty raising funds, and it was their idea to come and do the Bingo nights to help out the center. Now that we’ve gotten to a much better place financially, we’re able to split the proceeds to go to both the Pride Center and the Cyber Sluts’ other charities throughout the community.”

In September, the Cyber Sluts collected more than $2,000 from Bingo night alone. And according to Nuttall, who attends Bingo night to direct “the Pride Center side of things,” the number will only continue to grow. She said the game night fundraiser is attracting a bigger and “more diverse crowd,” and at $5 admission per person, that can add up.

Nuttall also noted that the Cyber Sluts plan to take the event “on the road,” hosting Bingo night starting Dec. 14, 2007, at the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society (6876 S. Highland Dr., Salt Lake City) for the next few months, then moving it to another part of the valley.

The Cyber Sluts experience no shortage of Bingo, AIDS benefits and Pride weeks, but just how does one find himself performing in drag for charity? Steward’s story starts with the formation of the troupe itself, which was inspired by the Denver Cycle Sluts, a similar fundraising outfit. Two inquisitive Utahns, Rand Bodily and Chris Trujillo, caught a Cycle Slut performance nearly 17 years ago and felt inspired to mimic their antics and generosity, according to an article published in the November 2007 issue of QSaltLake.

Taking their concept back to Utah’s salty turf, Bodily adopted the name Lucky Charms, and Trujillo became Andromeda Strange. As they acquired more volunteers, the twosome blossomed into a full-fledged performance troupe, which they named the Utah Cyber Sluts — tweaking the moniker to slightly differ from the Denver group’s.

As one of their first charitable efforts, they started Camp Pinecliff Weekend, an annual camping retreat for people with HIV/AIDS, their family and their caregivers. And while the camp acts to bring hope to those with the disease, it also serves as the birthplace of Ruby Ridge, who now is one of the event’s main coordinators.

“I knew Rand and Chris, and we just got to talking one night in the lodge and boom! Ruby was born,” Steward explained. “They are great performers and sort of dragged me along by my boot straps until I learned the basics.”

Though founders Bodily and Trujillo have passed the leadership torch on to other Sluts, such as Ida Slapter, the current “Madame,” Ridge and the rest of the troupe continue to reach out to the LGBT community, and beyond.

“They really promote a sense of community,” Nuttall said, “and they’re a great and fun social outlet for both our community and the community at large.”

Just like the Sluts aren’t limited to raising funds for just one demographic of the community, Steward isn’t limited to playing Ridge only under the Cyber Slut name. He also flexes Ridge’s sharp-tongued wit as a columnist for the local LGBT news and entertainment newspaper, QSaltLake. Her column, in which she touches on current events amid a bounty of endearment terms (calling readers “muffins,” “petals,” etc.), has gained a steady following. According to Assistant Editor JoSelle Vanderhooft, Ridge’s column, “Rocky Meadows Mascara,” is one of the paper’s most popular features.

“I’m really surprised at how many people actually read my column,” Ridge said. “I always did it as a joke, but people really respond to it.”

In many ways, the same sentiment applies to the Utah Cyber Sluts. Though they joke with funny names, bad fashion sense and diva attitudes, they get the attention of many in the community at large, and it’s due to their unique and entertaining take on charity work.

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