What Kept Cheryl Up at Night
When Cheryl Perera read about the child sex trade for a civics class assignment, she knew she had to do something to help. Her Catholic upbringing had instilled a deep well of empathy, and teachers at St. Robert Catholic High School and Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School helped turn that empathy into action.
When I was in Grade 10, I received a simple project to research an organization of my choosing. Little did I know, that assignment would help shape the course of my entire life.
For the assignment, I read a book about the child sex trade in Thailand. When I heard about the struggle and abuse these kids face, I was angered, blown away – I couldn’t sleep. It weighed on me for a long time and I decided I had to do something about it. So, I joined a local organization in Thornhill, was trained as a speaker, and began presenting about the issue in high schools and elementary schools. My teacher at Mary Ward supported me from the beginning. I still felt I could do more.
I decided to travel to Sri Lanka to gather as much information as I could about child sex trafficking from the source. I wanted to meet children, hear their stories. I wanted to interview law enforcement, social workers, government officials, parents, anyone who would talk to me. I wanted to learn what young people like me could do to help combat this injustice.
At age seventeen, supported by my school and parents, I went to Sri Lanka to learn more about this horrible issue. I even did something I hadn’t expected to do: I went undercover with the Sri Lankan police, acting as a decoy to foil a predator. I trained with them, learned how to fake an accent and how to work with spy technology. When the day came, I was definitely nervous going undercover but I had a lot of faith in the police. I wore a camera to collect evidence. After the man expressed interest in going back to a hotel with me, the police moved in and made an arrest.
I will never know what it’s like to be one of those children, but to sit with a predator for an hour while I was undercover, it made me understand a sliver of what these children go through, and gave me a personal experience I could bring back.
When I returned to Canada, I founded One Child, an organization for youth to take action against the exploitation of children everywhere. I wanted to empower youth like myself who felt passionate and wanted to make a difference. I felt we could take a leading role in tackling this issue. That was fifteen years ago, and I’m still going strong.
I’m often asked what motivated me to go so far with this issue. A lot of it has to do with my Catholic upbringing and the support and encouragement I received from role models in my life like my parents, my teachers, and my principal. Empathy was something that was engrained in me, I became someone who couldn’t stand on the sidelines. This lesson has helped me find real purpose in the work I do to this day.