Local senior advocacy organization honors LGBTQ activists

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Ada Bello

The Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (CARIE) will present its annual Spirit of CARIE Award to LGBTQ+ elder activists John C. Butts and Ada Bello. The cocktail party event, “Be the Voice!,” will take place on April 23 at the studios of WHYY. 

“I think it’s important just to recognize the people who are so critical to the work that is important to helping people,” said Diane Menio, CARIE’s executive director. “We believe very strongly in the power of systemic change. We help people individually, but we know that if we’re helping one person, there’s many more that might have the same problem.”

Bello, who was born in Cuba and came to Philadelphia in 1962, is a longtime activist in the LGBTQ+ community. She took part in founding the Philadelphia chapter of Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian civil and political rights organization, as well as its descendant organization, the Homophile Action League. Bello’s participation in the 2010 LGBT Aging Summit, organized by Heshie Zinman, facilitated her involvement in the founding of LGBT Elder Initiative (LGBTEI). Bello also served for 19 years as a long-term care ombudsman for CARIE. 

“I have a very high opinion of CARIE and their mission,” Bello said. “I’m very honored by the distinction.” She served as a liaison between CARIE and LGBTEI. “CARIE was a great help in starting LGBTEI. From the very beginning, we were working together,” she said.

John Butts and his partner of 21 years, Michael Smith

Butts has also volunteered and raised funds for Philadelphia’s elder and LGBTQ communities. He has served on CARIE’s board, as well as on the board for Action Wellness, where he was involved in the organization’s annual Dining Out for Life event. From there, he started his own fundraising event Cocktails for a Cause, through which he raised a substantial amount of money for Action Wellness. He plays an active role in the religious social justice group Sisters of Mercy.

“When the award was announced, I can’t tell you the number of people who called us and said, what a wonderful selection,” said Michele Mathis, development director at CARIE. “[John] is just beloved throughout the community. Ada Bello is an icon in her own right.”

A coalition of groups and individuals — including the Friends’ Committee on Aging and the ageism advocacy network Grey Panthers — created CARIE in 1977. CARIE became a nonprofit organization in 1979 and offers a variety of programs, including advocacy services and emergency security for elderly crime victims, transportation solutions, Medicaid protection and more. The CARIE team also engages in national advocacy work, such as helping to secure nondiscrimination regulations in health care programs. 

Though separate from CARIE, LGBTEI is dedicated to ensuring that LGBTQ older adults are able to lead authentic, fulfilling lives. Mathis took part in getting LGBTEI off the ground when she served as director of education and training for CARIE roughly 10 years ago. She convened with other members of CARIE as well as members of LGBTQ and senior communities to discuss methods of uniting elder services and LGBTQ communities. 

“It occurred to me that there were older adults… who their whole lives have been in the closet,” Mathis said. “How do we reach those people to provide services?” 

Currently, LGBTEI is comprised of “consumers, representatives of the area agencies on aging, other aging service organizations LGBT service and community organizations and representatives of local government agencies.”

Menio served on the first board of LGBTEI. “It was a concern we’ve had for going back 25 years,” she said. “We did a summit in Philadelphia bringing some pretty good people in Philadelphia to talk about the issues. That’s where the organization started.” 

Prior to the cocktail party event, CARIE will host a VIP reception at 4:30 p.m., where the award-winners will speak about their accomplishments. The main event will take place at 5:30 p.m. on April 23, where guests can enjoy wine, beer, a selection of food, as well as live and silent auctions. Tickets are $100 per person, $75 in advance until March 20, and $150 to be a benefactor.   

“I just think that it’s about time,” Menio said in reference to the recognition of Bello and Butts. “Both of them are so amazing, inspiring people and we wanted to recognize that.”