Little Girl, Big Heart

By Randy Noles

Georgia Bernbaum’s project allows homeless children to experience the joy of dance.

Georgia Bernbaum, 12, says she considered ways in which she could help children living at the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. “I thought about what it would be like to live at the coalition, and what kids my age would like to do there,” she says. “Then I just knew that I wanted to create the Dance Happy Project.”

eorgia Bernbaum, 12, wanted to promote dance and help homeless children with her bat mitzvah project. “We were thinking she’d do something small,” says her mother, Elizabeth. For example, Georgia might consider donating money to a scholarship fund at the Center for Contemporary Dance, where she’d been taking lessons.

Oh, but simply writing a check was much too easy. Georgia was a little girl, but she wanted to make a big impact. That’s how the Dance Happy Project was born.

The program, which was recently covered in the Huffington Post, has for the past year provided free dance instruction to youngsters living at the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida. Georgia even hired her own teacher, Dario J. Moore, to work with the coalition kids.

Moore has a master’s degree in dance education and 15 years of experience teaching dance to special populations, including those with Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder and cerebral palsy.

Georgia funded her effort through modest grants from the Orlando chapter of The Awesome Foundation, which awards $1,000 stipends to arts-related efforts “that help to advance awesomeness in the universe,” and from the Pollination Project, founded by a Dallas millionaire who decided to give away $1,000 a day for the rest of his life to promote social justice.

Unquestionably, creating the Dance Happy Project was an impressive accomplishment for the precocious youngster, a Maitland Middle School student with a dancer’s willowy build, a mouth full of braces and head full of curly dark hair. But, with grant money running out, nobody would have blamed her for accepting some well-earned kudos and bowing out.

Georgia, however, was only getting started.

On Monday, Feb. 9, the Dance Happy Project will hold its first major fundraiser: a silent art auction at the The Margeson Theater in the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center.

The doors will open at 5:45 p.m. for a pre-show viewing. More than 50 pieces have been donated by an international roster of acclaimed artists, including some local favorites such as Cory Wright, a regular participant in the Winter Park Paint Out, and Charles Gatewood, a past Best of Show winner at the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival.

At 6:30 p.m., there’ll be a dance concert emceed by radio personality Moira from Real Radio 104.1’s Phillips Phile. Central Florida modern dance companies, including Dawn Branch Works, Mary Love Project, Coby Project and DRIP, will perform.

The cost is $10 for general admission and $15 for advanced seating. Tickets can be purchased through the Center for Contemporary Dance by calling 407-695-8366.

Georgia wrote to more than 100 artists asking for auction donations. And, using leads provided by Moore and other adults, she recruited the participating dance companies and asked their choreographers to create original works for the show.

Her motivation? She wanted to continue sharing the healing power of dance with children who’ve had to face extraordinarily tough personal challenges. Dance, she believes, provides an outlet for creative expression and enhances self-esteem. “I thought about what it would be like to live at the coalition, and what kids my age would like to do there,” she says. “Then I just knew that I wanted to create the Dance Happy Project.”

The goal of the fundraiser, Georgia adds, is to raise enough money to keep the program going for three years. Each series of classes costs about $500, most of which is used to pay the instructors.

Moore, who is technically Georgia’s employee as well as her teacher, “is truly brilliant, magical, when he teaches,” according to Elizabeth. “If Georgia found someone else equally charismatic, she could also hire that person. She’s the boss.”

True, but like all good bosses, she knows when it’s best to delegate. The Center for Contemporary Dance, a nonprofit based in Winter Park, agreed to accept the project under its umbrella so that donations would be tax deductible. Executive Director Craig Johnson has helped Georgia investigate additional grants and is mentoring her in the minutiae of nonprofit management.

Elizabeth, a reporter turned volunteer, and Lee, her attorney father, have provided general guidance while allowing Georgia to do as much as she’s legally able to do. She was, for example, too young to sign the venue rental contract or to even start a Facebook page. Her mom manages the social media campaign and monitors her correspondence.

“What Georgia has accomplished is exciting, especially considering her age,” Elizabeth says. “There’s a small village of adults supporting her. Otherwise, the Dance Happy Project’s mission, the name, the logo, the fundraiser — all of these things are guided by Georgia.”

The pre-teen force behind the feel-good program says that in addition to the personal satisfaction that comes from helping others, she’s learning a lot from the experience — and may have found her calling in the process. Says Georgia: “I think that I may want to make a career of fundraising for the causes I care about.”

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