Rita Cisneros, an advocate for mental-health awareness in the LGBT community, died May 25 at Harrisburg Hospital of cancer. She was 62.
Cisneros, a native of Baldwin Park, Calif., lived and worked in Harrisburg as a project coordinator of Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association’s Keystone Pride Recovery Initiative.
Cisneros was born Jan. 20, 1951, to Trinidad and Carmen Cisneros. She was a member of and served as a deacon at Metropolitan Community Church of the Spirit of Harrisburg and also sat on the board of directors for the church. Cisneros was active in the Central PA LGBT Community Center Women’s Group and Stonewall Democrats, and served on the board for Adler Health Services.
Friends and coworkers remembered her as a lively and passionate individual who put her everything into advancing mental-health awareness within the LGBT community.
Pat Madigan, director of training and technical assistance for PMHCA, knew Cisneros through their work at the organization and said they became quick friends shortly after she interviewed Cisneros for the position.
Madigan said Cisneros worked hard to bring the Keystone Pride Recovery Initiative to PMHCA.
“It was a project that we funded and we got a three-year grant from The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,” she said, explaining that the project “provided us an opportunity to put forth training that would have providers, community people and specialists to hopefully provide a welcoming and affirming environment for persons of the LGBT community when receiving services,” Madigan said.
Madigan said Cisneros was a driving force behind the initiative.
“These last three years really have been about her commitment and passion for this, and she helped to move this not only in the state but nationwide,” she said. “We would go to the yearly national meeting through SAMHSA and explain what we were doing here in Pennsylvania. The impact she had was amazing.”
Madigan described Cisneros as someone who made deep connections with the individuals with whom she worked.
“She had a keen sense of the needs of the LGBT community and she could sense that from one-on-one discussions. Her commitment and keying in on particular issues of the LGBT community and what is needed was special,” Madigan said. Mark Davis, founding president of PMHCA and co-chair of KPRI, said he bonded with Cisneros over their past as high school cheerleaders and traded jokes about her love of the Los Angeles Dodgers, whom he disliked. Davis met Cisneros when he was presenting a workshop on LGBT mental-health issues in St. Louis.
“She was in the audience that day and I was just so impressed by her,” Davis said. “So when PMHCA started doing mental-health LGBT planning, I said right away, ‘We’ve got to get Rita involved to help with this.’ It was admiration at first sight.”
Davis said Cisneros had a way of talking about issues in places people would never expect.
“What is remarkable is that she had been in the corners and pockets of Pennsylvania that you would never expect to be open to discussing LGBT mental-health issues,” Davis said. “She had charisma and was someone who just has been out and open her whole life and open about her own mental-health struggles, and has been able to turn it around and be a role model and example for others to help people recover.”
Cisneros is survived by partner Ginny Dikeman; father, Trinidad; brothers Gary, Trini, David and Carlos; sister Lucy Armas; nieces, nephews, cousins; a wide circle of friends; and her two cats, Bob and Ditto.