Belly dancers battle domestic violence

Chris Cato reporting

- It seems every time the leaders and volunteers at CASA celebrate a milestone, they are reminded their work is never done.

CASA, which stands for Community Action Stops Abuse, is the domestic violence agency that serves southern Pinellas County.

It recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of the opening of its 100-bed shelter and domestic violence center.

Sadly, the shelter is almost always at capacity.

"There is just such a great need for it in this area," says Suzanne Horn, interim executive director of CASA.

She says when the non-profit agency started in 1977, it consisted of a couple of volunteers operating out of two-bedroom house in St. Petersburg.

Now, it's much more than a 100-bed shelter.

It staffs a 24-hour helpline, places advocates in court to help with injunctions, works with child protective investigators at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and carries anti-violence programs to schools.

It also staffs a resource center that helps survivors find housing, employment, counseling and many other forms of aid.

Horn says CASA receives some funding from grants, but the lifeblood of its operating budget comes from public donations.

"We could not be who we are without them," says Horn.

Over the years, community members have stepped up in various ways to provide financial support to CASA.

One of the most unique comes courtesy of an unlikely ally: belly dancing.

Every year, a team of dancers at Hip Expressions Belly Dance Studio in St. Pete raises money for CASA through something called "Shimmy Mob".

It started several years ago, when an international belly dancing guru decided to organize a global "flash mob".

Belly dancing groups all over the world learn the same routine and perform it on World Belly Dance Day, the second Saturday of May.

Rather than just put on a show, the groups spend the year raising money for a single cause: fighting domestic violence.

CASA is the local shelter that benefits from Hip Expressions' efforts.

Elizabeth Canning is one of the studio's "Shimmy Mob" leaders.

"It feels good to me to know that I am helping an organization that helps women who are in situations like my mom was in," says Canning.

Not only does Elizabeth's "Shimmy Mob" raise money for CASA, some of the dancers have actually gone to the shelter to put on belly dance clinics for survivors.

"Women who have been in domestic violence situations, a lot of them have lost their self-worth," says Canning. "They have poor body image, and belly dance helps empower them and give them their body back, essentially."

"It gives them a moment to escape," says Horn.

Which is really what CASA is all about.

Escape.

The agency is currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign called "The Purple Purse Challenge".

It ends at the end of October.

To find out how you can help, visit http://www.casa-stpete.org/home. And if you would like more information on the belly dancing class, visit http://hip-expressions.com.

 

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