Karissa Buell isn’t going to let anything stand in the way of achieving her dreams.
The 22 year old calls Traverse City home, and she knows the area like the back of her hand. I meet Karissa at Horizon Books for coffee and we decide to spend the afternoon in Traverse City, starting the day at Peace, Love and Little Donuts.
“I love this place!” Karissa says. “They have a million different flavors and they make them fresh when you order.”
We sit down with our donuts and Karissa tells me a little bit about herself.
Karissa grew up in Traverse City and attended Traverse City St. Francis High School. Karissa currently attends Central Michigan University where she studies speech pathology and plans to attend graduate school to further her education in the field. Karissa plans on using her degree to help autistic children overcome avoidance of certain foods.
“It’s just a fulfilling job. At Central there’s a clinic on campus and I had the opportunity to work the whole year as a clinician there and it’s just been the most fulfilling thing ever. Their parents come in and their child won’t eat chicken or something like that, so being able to work with them for a semester or however long and see the progress that they make is fantastic. The parents are so grateful, the kids are happy because they’re not frustrated at not being able to eat what everybody else is eating. It’s giving them some independence when their life is already hard.”
After cleaning up our sugar-covered hands and faces, Karissa and I walk down to North Peak Brewing, where she has worked as a bartender for seven years. Karissa’s coworkers are pleased to see her and we try some yummy homemade root beer.
Karissa works at North Peak when she is home from school, and has paid for school by herself with her earnings.
“I save up everything I make here in the summer, and that covers a lot of my semester. It’s funny, I feel like a lot of people my age don’t like living with their parents but every time I’m home for the summer I’m so happy to be at my mom’s, like yes, free rent!” Karissa laughs.
Karissa is close with her family. Growing up in a single parent household makes for a tight-knit clan, and Karissa, her mom and her brother are a strong trifecta. Beyond the trio, Karissa and her brother are also very close to their grandparents who live in town.
“My mom traveled a lot for work when we were kids and about four to five months out of the year we would spend with our grandparents in this big, beautiful home with this really cool, original woodwork. It actually used to be a bed and breakfast. So there were five bedrooms and my brother and I each had our own room. My favorite color is purple, so mine was painted purple!”
Growing up so close with her grandparents has fostered an endless bond that inspired Karissa to get a tattoo of a saying that her grandmother always told her. “Stand strong, brown sugar.”
Being the only candidate of color doesn’t faze Karissa at all. In fact, she never lets her mixed race define who she is or how people see her.
“When I was applying for schools, people told me that I should really milk the fact that I’m, you know, a woman of color and being from a single-mom home. And I’m like ‘I’m not going to use that to get me anywhere. I’m going to use my smarts.’”
We make a stop to one of Karissa’s favorite places in downtown Traverse City, Handz On Art. Karissa likes flexing some creative muscle here and has created some pretty ceramic creations of her own. The owner warmly greets her after getting off the phone with a customer and the two talk about the upcoming National Cherry Festival. Before leaving the shop, owner Julie O’Hearn says, “We’re all rooting for you here!”
Shocked that I haven’t been down to the Open Space and the beach yet, Karissa insists we go and we stroll through the Warehouse District to make our way over.
Once we’re at the beach, Karissa tells me a little more about why she would like the title of Cherry Queen.
“I believe that I’m a young person with an old soul, so being able to link all of the generations together would be really cool for the cherry industry and the community. As a Traverse City local, I’ve been able to experience every part of Traverse City and I have a lot of respect for this community and the cherry industry.”
We make one more stop to say hi to Karissa’s sponsor, Dan Brady of Dan Brady Painting and Wood Restoration. Dan has been a family friend of the Buells’ for years, so when Karissa asked for his support on running for Cherry Queen it was an easy yes.
“I always like giving back to the community, and Karissa is like a family member, so when she approached me it was kind of a no-brainer. Who better a representative for the area than Karissa?”
The afternoon is quickly transitioning to evening and Karissa drives me down East Front Street back to my car. Throughout the day walking around downtown, Karissa seemed to get stopped by a friend calling out to her at every turn and our last car ride was no different. In the middle of a conversation another “Hey Karissa!” floats through the open car windows as, sure enough, two girls are waving. Karissa smiles and waves back.
“Those are friends of mine,” Karissa says while she waves out the window. “They’re over at my house all the time. I’ll actually probably see them later.”
Somehow it feels like the whole city is friends with Karissa, which is exactly how she likes it.
“I loved growing up here, who wouldn’t?”
It’s onward and upward to festival week in the city Karissa loves, and I’m sure she’ll be seeing a lot more friendly faces as she vies for Cherry Queen.
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