The night that I meet Nerissa Cariño, there are several children at her home in Pickering, Ontario. Four are her own: Cariño and her partner have boys aged 11, seven and three, and a five-year-old girl. The others are family that they are babysitting. “It’s really loud there!” she says, as we chat at Tim Hortons. But Cariño seems pretty serene about the situation – the U of T student, volunteer, activist and volleyball player is used to being pulled in a lot of directions.
In November, Cariño was awarded the YMCA of Greater Toronto’s Peace Medallion. The award recognized V-Day events that she organized at U of T Scarborough in 2009. V-Day is a movement inspired by Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues – independent groups hold events all over the world on or around February 14, raising awareness and money for charities that combat violence against women. It’s an issue that Cariño has become passionate about. “To raise money, I approached entrepreneurs. And many of the women said, ‘I really want to get involved, because this is what happened to me,’” she says.
At U of T Scarborough, Cariño’s events raised $2,500 for Springtide Resources, the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre and women in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
V-Day wasn’t Cariño’s first project – she has been running the Scarborough Mystics Volleyball Club for years, giving women a place to play and create a sense of community. Cariño started at U of T when her oldest son was five and if her story has one message, it might be the liberating power of higher education.
“I was a makeup artist, and also worked in product development, with MAC, and I didn’t want to go back there,” she says. “University totally changed me; your eyes are opened, and you gain the confidence to explore.”
Cariño graduated in 2007 with a degree in anthropology and religion, which she upgraded to an honours degree in 2008 (and which now includes a health studies component). This year, she is taking courses to complete prerequisites for teachers’ college. Since winning the peace medallion Cariño is also considering such options as starting an organization that supports women. It’s hard to imagine where she will find the time, between shuttling her kids to schools and sports, doing her own homework and housework, and playing volleyball. “I don’t sleep much,” says Cariño. “I kind of catnap between three and six a.m., and at six I’m ready to go!”
Cariño says the award has helped her stay motivated. “You get tired, because you just feel that there’s so much of you being given out,” she says. “But to get honoured in this way refuels you.”