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Local CASA branch holds kickoff event
Upcoming fundraiser supports CASA mission
Griffin Lotson, Justin Frasier, Karen Bell, Kathy Villafane and Donald Spencer stand with Atlantic Area CASA Executive Director Petula Gomillion (second from left) at the organization's Dancing with the Stars of the Coastal Empire kickoff event, held Jan. 9 at the La Quinta Inn in Flemington. The five local "celebrities," along with DeLisa Espada, will compete March 7 at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center in a fundraising effort that will support the CASA's mission. - photo by Photo by Jeremy McAbee

Area residents, business leaders and “celebrities” gathered Friday at the La Quinta Inn in Flemington for the Atlantic Area Court Appointed Special Advocates’ Dancing with the Stars kickoff event.

According to Atlantic Area CASA Executive Director Petula Gomillion, the second-annual Dancing with the Stars of the Coastal Empire competition — the organization’s biggest fundraising event of the year — will be March 7 at the Liberty County School System’s Performing Arts Center in Flemington.

“The Dancing with the Stars competition is our signature event,” she said. “It was almost a sold-out crowd last year, and I’m hoping that we are completely sold out this year.”

Gomillion said that the Atlantic Area CASA Inc. is an affiliate of Georgia CASA Inc. and its parent organization, the National CASA Association.

According to its website, the Atlantic Area CASA’s mission is to “provide a community of trained volunteers to actively advocate for the best interest of abused and/or neglected children involved in Juvenile Court proceedings.”

The website states that at any given time, approximately 13,000 Georgia children are “entangled in the juvenile-justice and foster-care systems due to abuse or neglect.”

Nationally, more than 3 million children are reported as abused or neglected every year, according to National CASA literature. CASA volunteers help by recommending “the best possible outcome” for those children.

The literature goes on to state that children with CASA representation have higher chances of being adopted and are more likely to be re-unified with a birth parent.

The Atlantic Area CASA represents children from Liberty, Long, Bryan, McIntosh, Tattnall, Evans, Ware and Pierce counties, Gomillion said. Last year, 33 volunteers advocated for 132 children throughout those counties.

At Friday’s kickoff event, Atlantic Area CASA board Chairwoman Debra Motley explained that although CASA operates on a volunteer basis, CASA’s services are mandated by both federal and state laws.

“It’s a bit of a catch-22,” she said.

Volunteering to become a CASA representative is not the only way to help, Gomillion said. Donations always are accepted, and all proceeds raised from the Dancing with the Stars event will go “back to our volunteer program,” she noted.

Friday’s kickoff event served as a chance for the “stars” to mix and mingle with one another and to meet the professional dancers they will be paired with for the competition.

Six competitors will be vying for this year’s trophy: Justin Frasier, Liberty County commissioner; Kathy Villafane, Hinesville-area real-estate agent; Griffin Lotson, Darien city councilman; DeLisa Espada, president/CEO of Strategic Business Solutions Ultd. Inc.; Donald Spencer, senior vice commander and chaplain of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 46; and Karen Bell, a local businesswoman and defending Dancing with the Stars champion.

The evening was marked by a spirit of good-natured competition, as each competitor expressed their excitement to participate in the event.

“Last year was a great adventure and experience,” Bell said. “CASA is one of those organizations that if you can’t volunteer … you can go out and raise some money for it, and that’s a great privilege.”

Lotson, who also serves as a commissioner on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission, said he was “only going to tell … a little bit, because (he and his partner) plan to walk out with the trophy.”

“All of us have a dream,” Spencer shot back to the crowd’s delight.

“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this event,” said Frasier, who was fashionably late to the evening’s festivities.

“The reason I was a little tardy was because I had my first dance lesson today,” he continued. “Everyone always talks about how I only know two dance steps … but I want everyone to know that today, in an hour of practice, I learned one more. So, now I know three.”

Tickets for the March 7 event may be purchased through any of the competitors, or by calling 876-3816.

More information on CASA can be found at, or

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