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Instructor's 'Dancing for Donations' spawns a treat for special needs kids in Brandon

BRANDON — Sara Battaglia's love for dancing and generous heart has launched a feet-driven fundraising effort.

When Battaglia first began holding free dance classes in her native Port Charlotte, she decided to ask parents for a small donation to go directly to a different charity each month.

As a busy college student and dance teacher at four different locations, she wanted to volunteer, but simply didn't have the time.

Battaglia, however, never anticipated a growing group of special needs families seeking those classes. Now, as the holidays approach, more and more Brandon parents have their children "dancing for donations."

"I started it in Port Charlotte where I'm from with a similar program but it didn't necessarily have special needs kids involved," Battaglia said. "When I moved to Tampa for school and started teaching at different studios and I wanted to do it here."

Initially, Dancing for Donations was operating out of the Moose Lodge in Valrico. But through the guidance of her students' parents, they connected to We Rock the Spectrum owner Michelle Kapusta and began having classes at that location.

"Because this is a place for all kinds of kids, whether they're special needs or not, it made sense that we start having parents of all types of kids show interest in classes," said Battaglia, who gets assistance from Amanda Ross. "We had a mom come in and ask if her daughter with autism could take the class. I said of course, and because a lot of studios won't include special needs classes and the interest sort of spread that way."

For Laurie Harrison, finding an enjoyable and inclusive activity for her 10-year-old daughter Toni has proven difficult in the past.

"Toni's official diagnosis is intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, ADHD, Apraxia mixed articulation, and low muscle tone and basically they gave her those diagnosis to help with insurance reasons, but no one knows what's wrong with her," Harrison said. "A lot of other programs are catered to autism. Well, Toni doesn't have autism, and there is such a huge range of intellectual and physical disabilities and Sara and Amanda understand that."

Although Toni's physical therapy, which she had been attending since she was 3-months-old, was put on a temporary hold recently, Harrison said she wasn't worried, because she was getting some of the same benefits from her dance class and was far more excited to dance than she ever was about therapy.

"Therapy became like a job," Harrison said. "It was her and the therapist, one-on-one. But in this environment she's excited to be around other kids."

For Bataglia and Ross, their student's have inspired them to continue their studies of special needs education. They also recently applied for a nonprofit business license with the help of a parent who happened to be a retired lawyer.

"We have 60 kids registered this month and 5 classes. If I had my way we'd eventually be able to do it full time," Battaglia said. "We just want to continue to learn from the families that come in here because that's so much of the reason why we kind of know what to do next."

Contact Kelsey Sunderland at