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CASA unveils Dancing with the Stars participants
Atlantic Area CASA Dancing with the Stars contestants, from left, Jennifer Poole of Bryan County; Beate Wickham and Ed Milan, both of Liberty County; Atlantic Area CASA Executive Director Petula Gomillion; and contestants Maria Rodriguez and Jewell Landers, both of Liberty County, smile together at the Dancing with the Stars of Coastal Empire kickoff event, at La Quinta Inn and Suites in Flemington on Friday evening. - photo by Tiffany King

FLEMINGTON — The competitors for the third annual Atlantic Area Court Appointed Special Advocates Dancing with the Stars of the Coastal Empire were announced Friday at La Quinta Inn and Suites.

Atlantic Area CASA staff, volunteers and community members gathered at the kickoff to see the debut of the new competitors.

The dancers representing Liberty County are Ed Milan, Maria Rodriguez, Jewell Landers and Beate Wickham, and for Bryan County, Jennifer Poole.

“Tonight is about getting ready to showcase our stars,” Atlantic Area CASA Executive Director Petula Gomillion said. “These are individuals who have volunteered their time to help us fundraise for a cause — for CASA.”

Atlantic Area CASA is an agency that advocates for children who have been abused, neglected and placed in foster care. Volunteers advocate for the best interest of the children while they are in foster care, with the goal of being reunited with their families should the home situation improve.

Atlantic Area CASA serves eight counties: Liberty, Long, Bryan, McIntosh, Tattnall, Evans, Ware and Pierce. Competitors try to raise the most money by selling tickets to the dance competition, set for 7 p.m. March 5 at the Liberty County Performing Arts Center.

Gomillion said the funds raised go toward recruiting volunteers. She said the average cost in providing advocacy services for a child is $1,100, and $350 to train one volunteer. The training and advocacy services are free for the children involved.

“Those are costs that the agency absorbs,” she said. “So that’s why we do fundraisers, so we can continue to offer this for free.”

Contestants are chosen because they are well-connected to the community and can help spotlight the agency’s efforts, Gomillion said.

The dancers introduced themselves to the gathered crowd.

Poole works for an in-patient substance abuse program on St. Simons Island.

“Bryan County means a lot to me. We have a lot of people,” she said. “Bryan County has one of the highest suicide rates for teenagers in the state of Georgia. So this is a way for me to get the word out for CASA, but also our teens and adolescents have a lot of issues.”

She added that her goal is to win the award for Top Fundraiser.

Wickham, owner of Bee’s Creations in Hinesville, said she’s excited to be a part of the competition.

Milan showed off some dance moves by moonwalking his way to the front. He said he has been in the community for 10 years and volunteers with the Hinesville Area Board of Realtors. He was inspired by watching Liberty County Commissioner Justin Frasier during the 2015 competition. Frasier won Best Male Dancer at the second Dancing with the Stars competition in March. Milan said he wants to win Top Fundraiser.

Rodriguez has lived in Hinesville since 1996. She worked for the Department of Defense Military Postal Service and Kessler Elementary School, both on Fort Stewart. Rodriguez currently works as a bartender at the Blue Fountain Lounge inside La Quinta.

“They’ve been asking me to volunteer since last year to dance, so I’m going to do it this year,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m getting into, but I would like to also know more about the program (CASA) and be a volunteer too.”

Landers is a Hinesville native.

“I work for Navy Federal (Credit Union) in Richmond Hill, and I just love to dance,” she said. “I was talking with my mother-in-law, and she somehow convinced me to participate. I am here to raise as much money as possible, so I got my eye on Ed Milan and Jennifer Poole.”

Kathy Villafane, who won Top Winner Overall, Top Fundraiser and Best Female Dancer for the second Dancing with the Stars, and Frasier gave advice to the new contestants.

Frasier said it is a great experience, encouraged the dancers to have fun and told them it was important to remember the reason behind the competition. Villafane said the hardest part is saying, “yes” and to stay committed.

“You have to remember to stay focused and remember the reason why you said, ‘yes,’ which is to raise funds and awareness for the agency. Keep that as your main focus,” Villafane said. “You’re all winners because you said, ‘yes.’”

Villafane told her story of how participating with she Dancing with the Stars led to her doing other dancing competitions.

“We are excited for those that are volunteering with us,” Gomillion said. “We’re excited that they are willing to brave the trenches in order to get on stage and raise money for a good cause.”

Tickets for the dance competition can be purchased from the contestants or by calling 876-3816.

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