‘The family is still the best place to be,’ says Cerkez

Brenda Cerkez knew early on that each human life was important. Even as a teenager she admired the efforts of her older sister, who was very active in the pro-life movement. In one way or another, most of her entire adult life has revolved around helping others understand respect for human life.

In her early 20s, after graduating with a journalism degree from the University of South Carolina, Cerkez began working for an advertising and public relations agency. While working full time, she decided to volunteer with Columbia’s Citizens for Life. Her natural leadership abilities helped her quickly reach the position of secretary and public relations chairperson.

However, after working at the advertising agency for six years, Cerkez began to feel burned out with her job.

She remembers praying many times and wishing there were some way that she could work full time at South Carolina Citizens for Life and still have a means to support herself.

Her prayers were answered when funding was found and the SCCL board of directors asked Cerkez to be the first full-time, paid executive director for the organization.

She remained in that position for seven years, but grew increasingly frustrated with the South Carolina General Assembly for its reluctance to seriously debate and pass meaningful legislation that would protect unborn children, women in crisis pregnancies, and medically vulnerable individuals.

“I knew that part of finding the answers to the increasing disregard for human life had to be addressing key philosophical issues, at a deeper level, regarding the gift of human life,” she said. “I prayed for direction.”

Cerkez believed her answer would be found in an invitation from Ann Nerbun, a founder of the parent-child chastity education program known nationally as Family Honor.

Nerbun was looking for a full-time executive director to hire, and thought Cerkez had the passion and the ability to do the job. Nerbun had worked with the SCCL director previously in a coalition to stop a comprehensive sex education program that called for contraceptive distribution in schools. She knew Cerkez had a commitment to a strong pro-life ethic.

On Nov. 1, 1993, Cerkez began her new job with Family Honor.

In her decade of leadership, Cerkez has seen the program grow  from a few teachers and programs to over 20 adult presenters, 18 adult interns, 14 teen presenters, and seven young adult presenters. During 2003-2004, Family Honor will put on 22 parent-child programs in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Missouri and Ohio, along with a leadership training seminar in Tulsa, Okla. The demand is growing so quickly that Family Honor is barely staying ahead of it, especially the demand for out-of-state programs.

“The last two years have been a period of significant growth. In part, the growth has been spurred on by our first national conference held in 2002 in Charleston,” Cerkez said. “It brought us to the attention of a lot more people, including Catholic parishes and dioceses in this country and beyond.”

 With the second national conference coming this summer in Atlanta, Cerkez says she anticipates the demand for programs, training and resources to explode. The Family Honor staff has been working hard to complete an interactive, computer-based teacher training course. They hope to have it up and running by September 2004 to help meet the demand.

“Ann Nerbun and Mary Ann Fey, who are the instructors for the teacher training course, have been working so hard to keep on our timetable,” Cerkez said. She added that the organization depends on God to help them over the many hurdles encountered in any given week.

Just as her staff learned to balance their important work and their own families, Cerkez and her husband, Mike, who have been married for three years, have learned to do the same.

Fortunately, Mike is equally committed to Family Honor and has completed the teacher training course.

While working for a district attorney’s office in Pennsylvania, he saw firsthand the tragic consequences when young people do not have self-worth and a healthy family life, and he sees Family Honor as part of the solution.

In 2002, the couple began the process of adopting a child, something they both had a strong desire to do. They have been waiting patiently for their son, whom they named Luke, to be released from Romania.

 “As Ann Nerbun has said for a long time, family is the core of everything,” Cerkez said. “It is where you find comfort. At the end of the day, even with the challenges and problems, the family is still the best place to be.”

As she prepares for motherhood, Cerkez believes that God has been preparing her all along for this important vocation.

“With each subsequent phase in my life, in hindsight, I realized that God was preparing me for the next step,” she said. “Journalism prepared me for the advertising and public relations field, which later helped me handle all the speaking/writing for SCCL. The work at SCCL opened my eyes to see the bigger perspective on the dignity of the human person and to focus not just on the right to life but on how we look at others and ourselves.”

She believes Family Honor, whose family-centered programs have re-mained unique after 16 years, has helped her get ready for the next exciting chapter of her life as a parent.