During a happy hour get-together in 2007, two friends were enjoying discounted glasses of wine and discussing the beauty of martial arts, comparing it to the movements of dancers. Pat Priest and Joan Prittie, who both share a passion for giving back, were quickly able to turn this particular conversation into an idea for a charity event based off the popular television show, “Dancing with the Stars.” This year, Project Safe will put on its 9th annual show, “Dancing with the Athens Stars,” which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for domestic violence prevention. Survivor, former participant, and now active member of the production team, Rebecca Vander Plaats, has been committed to this cause and event from its early stages and has truly assisted with making it the phenomenon it is today.
Towering at just over six feet tall, it seems logical that Vander Plaats was chosen to be a contestant in the 2009 “Dancing with the Athens Stars” show. Any preconceived notions that she was a lifelong dancer, though, were quickly set straight. “I started out with ballet lessons at age 4,” she says, implying that she was about as dedicated to the sport as every other young girl. “I haven’t been consistently dancing all my life. I just enjoy it.”
Competitors in the charity dance show are the Athens celebrities of all ages and occupations. Vander Plaats won her spot in the competition through the “People’s Choice” contest, in which any member of the Athens community can be nominated. “I actually had a friend nominate me,” Vander Plaats says with a soft laugh. “It’s sort of a fundraiser within the fundraiser, so those who are competing for the ‘People’s Choice’ spot have to earn as much money as possible to be able to perform in the show.”
The next year, Vander Plaats returned the favor and nominated her friend Erin Podvin, the regional program director for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, for the “People’s Choice” contest. “One of my most successful fundraisers was actually a yard sale that Rebecca helped me with,” Podvin says. “She even baked muffins and we sold those to the shoppers.” The two women held the yard sale at Vander Plaats’ home, which was a more convenient location and resulted in a better turnout. Podvin went on to win the entire 2010 show, and says, “And that all got its start thanks to Rebecca’s nomination.”
Vander Plaats felt a personal connection to the domestic violence prevention movement, as she was once a victim, but, more importantly, now a survivor, of domestic abuse. Vander Plaats explains that fear in her former romantic relationship eventually turned into stalking, and that she needed help to pay for legal services and to advocate for herself in the judicial system. “I really just want everyone to know about Project Safe and its resources,” she says while delicately picking apart her cream-covered bagel. “‘Dancing with the Athens Stars’ is more important for raising awareness than it is for raising money.”
As a member of the production team, Vander Plaats’ list of responsibilities is seemingly never-ending. “We coordinate the whole event from start to finish,” she says. She and her team coordinate the gatherings of all of the contestants and instructors, set up the online voting, work with the Classic Center, and so on. The team also plans on contacting local radio stations to propose ideas for segments on the show. Director of Project Safe, Joan Prittie, says, “It’s a year-round thing, not just one night. Even when [Vander Plaats] lived in Chicago for a little while, she still volunteered remotely.” Vander Plaats’ motivation to stay involved is driven simply by her desire for members of the Athens community to more easily recognize the good Project Safe has done for women and families over the years.
According to Dr. Nichole Ray, a UGA women’s studies lecturer, we are having more fruitful conversations than ever about the issue of domestic violence. “But,” she says, “we have to find the balance between serving victims and survivors while working toward eradicating the violence.” Women, like Vander Plaats, who are willing to talk about their past open the door for other women to speak out, seek help and put an end to the loneliness and shame inflicted on women in abusive relationships. One night of “Dancing with the Athens Stars” each year enables Project Safe to make approximately 10% of its annual revenue for the year, validating it to be one of the organization’s most effective fundraisers. “My hope for this year’s event is to be able to continue to raise funds that can be used flexibly and to cover what grants can’t,” Vander Plaats says. The main goal, however, of Vander Plaats and many other women and men, is that events such as “Dancing with the Athens Stars” will empower victims of domestic abuse, so that eventually these services will no longer be necessary.
By Sarah Panner