By Carley Dangona
WEST SPRINGFIELD – Military veterans are once again teaming up with professional dancers to raise funds for the Fisher House of Connecticut and are in need of community support to succeed in their efforts.
The West Springfield Fred Astaire dance studio is participating for its second year in the “Dancing with Our Heroes” fundraiser. The studio has two reservists that will be taking dance lessons in preparation for their performances at the fundraising gala that will take place on Sept. 13 at 6 p.m. in the Connecticut Convention Center, Hartford, Conn.
“The majority of the donations come from the online voting,” Kevin Creed, chairman of the Friends of Fisher House Connecticut and retired U.S. Army Major, said. “It has to be a grassroots effort. Veterans and families of veterans are looking for a meaningful way to support their hometown heroes – this is the way to do that.” He noted that 96 percent of donations go directly to veterans.
“When a person supports a Fisher House in one location, they are supporting many locations and all veterans. Families go there to be with loved ones for months or weeks of therapy,” Creed said.
Robin Jedlicka, licensee and director of the West Springfield Fred Astaire studio, also highlighted the importance of community participation. He said, “It’s a great opportunity for the community to get involved. Last year went really well. The gala was quite special and unique. All of the heroes did really well.”
The event will feature general dancing, a sit-down dinner, a silent auction, a professional show and the “Dancing with Our Heroes” competition. The proceeds will be donated to The Friends of Fisher House Connecticut for the construction of a Fisher House on the grounds of the West Haven, Conn. Veterans Affairs campus, which is slated to break ground in the beginning of 2015.
The 2013 event raised $125,000. This year’s goal is to raise $500,000. To date, $1.1 million has been raised towards the $3 million goal.
The “Dancing with Our Heroes” competition will be a Ballroom & Latin dance competition between the military heroes, who will each be partnered with a professional dance instructor. Each participating Fred Astaire Dance Studio will provide the instructors, and free lessons to help the hero prepare for the competition. There will be no cost to the hero for participation. Winners will be chosen by audience votes and a panel of celebrity judges, similar to the “Dancing with the Stars” TV show.
The two heroes working with the studio are Staff Sgt. Rozalia Luoma and 1st Sgt. Cheryl Shippee-Porter from the Brigadier General John W. Middleton United States Army Reserve Center in East Windsor, Conn. Luoma will dance the swing with partner Lee Williams and Shippee-Porter will perform the foxtrot with Jedlicka. Neither participant has any formal dance training.
“I feel sorry for my partner’s feet,” Luoma said. “I’m sure it’ll be challenging, but I [know I] will be able to laugh at myself if I make a mistake.”
A mother of two, Luoma has served for 18 years. During her 10 years of active duty, Luoma has been deployed in Germany, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Now, she serves as a military technician during the week and takes part in the reserves on the weekend.
Shippee-Porter is a supervisory staff administrator during the week and is Luoma’s boss during the week, but the two are also friends. She credited Luoma for bringing her attention to the fundraising competition.
“It sounded like fun. It’s for a good cause. I’m looking forward to learning and to having fun doing so,” Shippee-Porter said.
Shippee-Porter explained that she was “mobilized stateside,” responsible for training soldiers for overseas deployment at Fort Drum in New York.
Shippee-Porter and her husband have five children and eight grandchildren. Initially, she joined the army because the man she was dating at the time was enlisting. She’s served for 29 years, while he served for four years.
Creed became involved with the Fisher House after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. He had retired in 1996, but re-enlisted after 9/11. He said that upon his return, he wanted to work with an organization that gave back to the veterans, especially those who were wounded and in need of medical care.
He said that veterans also utilize the houses when their military stipends run out and they need housing while completing their medical treatment. He thanked the Fred Astaire Dance Studios for their “corporate consciousness.”
To members of the community, Creed said, “Get behind this. You have a veteran dancing from your area.”
To learn more about the Fisher House, visit www.fisherhousect.org
. Tickets for the gala cost $150. A $1 donation casts a vote for a dancer; a minimum of 10 votes must be made at once. For tickets, voting and to view the heroes’ profiles, go to http://dancingwithourheroes.com