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Teddy bears in Cerisa's memory
In honor of a former teacher's impact on students, a Yuma dance studio has kicked off its Empty Arms for Cerisa campaign to collect teddy bears for the chronically ill.
Cerisa Cardenas, a Yuma High School graduate and former student and instructor with Dancema- kers, died at age 33 last fall. She succumbed to a respiratory infection when she was working as a licensed vocational nurse at Chandler Regional Medical Center in Phoenix.
Even though Cerisa was working in Phoenix, Yuma was still her home and she continued to influence students at Dancemakers, said Cindy Turrentine, director.
"We believe if you give young people an opportunity, they can make a change in the community and grow into adults who do that. After Cerisa passed, she continued to make a difference. It's not just the bears. That's just a facet of the philosophy she lived."
Cerisa did much for charity, including serving as a child advocate with the Arizona legal system for children without parents to act on their behalf, Turrentine added.
Since 1996, Dancemakers has produced a spring concert to allow dancers to grow artistically and become responsibly involved by donating to charitable organizations, Turrentine explained.
At a concert in March, Dancemakers began a two-month campaign to collect teddy bears for Empty Arms. They have collected more than 20 bears so far and hope to top 100 the next couple of months, Turrentine said.
"We welcome the bears with open arms at the studio. I literally watched Cerisa grow up first as a student then as she worked for me. As a teacher, we think we're the ones who educate. But she taught me about humor, optimism and grace inside and out."
The bears serve as a reminder for anyone facing serious illness on life's challenges. Even though a person may feel alone, there is always a Cerisa with loving arms to help surmount obstacles, Turrentine stressed.
Empty Arms began 15 years ago at a Chandler hospital, noted Tony Gutierrez, Cerisa's father. The program was created to comfort mothers who lost newborns or infants to illness, so the hospital kept a stock of teddy bears on hand.
Cerisa worked both the prenatal and the geriatric units. There was one 99-year-old patient, Esther, for whom Cerisa cared, who had no visitors or family. So Cerisa got her a bear. Esther clung to that bear throughout her hospital stay and died with it in her arms, Gutierrez recalled.
It was after that Cerisa convinced the hospital to expand Empty Arms for all chronically ill patients. And before Cerisa became ill, Chandler invited her to serve as a liaison between nurses and doctors. Had she lived, that would have been her calling, as a hospital ombudsman, Gutierrez said.
"But it was Dancemakers that motivated her to be successful at whatever she did. She talked about how Cindy inspired her. She always kept her ties here, and Cindy was with her until the end."
Karla Morales, 18, a hip-hop instructor at Dancemakers, is a former student of Cerisa's. Although Morales was only 4 when she started in Cerisa's dance class, she said she will always remember her big smile.
"Cerisa always talked about how good dance was as a disciplinary skill and how it makes a person stronger spiritually, emotionally and physically. So I'm glad I stuck with dance all these years."
Yolanda Gutierrez, Cerisa's mother, remembers how her daughter threw herself into the dance program at Yuma High School, developing several routines for their performance productions and coaching the Choralairs. It was dance instruction that taught Cerisa the value of teamwork, she said.
"Having someone like Karla remember Cerisa when she was 4, that's what makes you smile and the fact that each of her students are passing it on to younger generations."