Local stars walk the walk and dance the dance to support kids seeking justice.
By Brianna Caleri, Photos courtesy of the Center of Child Protection
Jenny Mason is a dance coach now. Well, technically she’s an interior designer who plays in the band The Mrs. And she doesn’t teach anyone steps. But she’s bouncing around from studio to studio to make sure it’s all going smoothly. She’s like a more appealing Velma Von Tussle. And instead of harassing young Tracy Turnblad, she’s raising money for Austin’s Center for Child Protection.
It’s almost time for the Center’s 15th annual fundraising gala, Dancing with the Stars presented by Mercedes-Benz of Austin. Mason danced as a competitor six years ago, leading her to co-chair for the last four, and even to join the Center’s community board. This year, she is joined by real estate developer Julie Jumonville, who is sharing responsibility for production tasks including event planning, visiting dance lessons, running committee meetings, selling sponsorships and gathering items for the live auction.
The event gathers local cross-industry superstars with an interest in philanthropy, and pairs them with a professional dance coach for a night of ballroom extravagance. It is, ostensibly, a competition, just like its namesake TV show. The winner of the night is the dancer who brings in the most votes from both the audience and judges.
Even for one night, it’s hard work for the dancers, who have practiced multiple times a week for months. As if dancing in front of everyone you can muster up isn’t energy-consuming enough, there’s plenty of room to go above and beyond. Immersive tech strategist and competitor Amber Allen is coordinating Grease-themed costumes for all her guests. Adding an upcharge to each creation to go to the Center. She’s also considering running marketing campaigns for the Center, which she’ll build after she has her dance moves committed to muscle memory.
The Center triages services for children who have allegedly been abused or witnessed a violent crime. All the necessary teams are close by—providing forensic, therapeutic, medical and support services in one approachable place—to minimize the trauma involved in investigating and prosecuting crimes against the vulnerable group. One child, Allen recalls, held one end of a long string while his mother held another in the other room, for emotional support. It’s these little touches, from experience with kids to the Center’s creative thinking, that make it more than just another stop on a logistical nightmare.
“Actually getting to see the space and see how warm it was, it chokes me up,” says Allen. “They have everything there. They have the doctors, the police, all the lawyers for the kids; so they don’t have to go to a sterile place.”
It’s a topic that can get tearful very quickly. So a friendly dance competition is a great way to cut through and celebrate wins. Lawton Cummings, competitor and partner at the investing group Notley—a self-described “band of relentless changemakers”—is grateful to enter the event through close connections. Some like-minded friends invited her to join in their work with the Center, and her interest grew deeper from there. Cummings loves the model of encouraging more attendees through familiar faces, because it’s already worked on her.
“I am much more engaged when I’m doing multiple things. And I’m meeting so many people through each thing that I do,” says Cummings of balancing her time with work and other philanthropic endeavors. “There’s always connections that I make that I wouldn’t have made had I not also been swimming in that other lane.”
Another competitor, mortgage lender Rianna Alberty Boyd, brings those connections into her family. Her two 12-year-olds, TikTok dance fanaticals (and what 12-year-old isn’t?), are helping their mom work on her costume and dance steps. Alberty Boyd’s dance partner, Tristan Reimann, even taught the kids choreography for her recent wedding. The family organizes their charitable efforts through the Alberty Foundation, which she hopes will teach her children that hard work makes a difference, and can be fun too.
“I think if the girls just see me and Justin helping and supporting other people, that is passed down to them, and they understand the importance that they get to do the same as they grow up,” says Alberty Boyd. “Even if I get out there and I forget my steps, it’s still worth it. It’s about all of us coming together for a really great cause.”
This year, the event sold out faster than it ever has. Producing it is a year-long process. But its popularity as one of the biggest galas in Austin is a testament to all that necessary work. The Center’s needs change with every new case. So flexible cash funding is crucial to keep it running at the same high level of care. While it’s hard to understand the depth of help many children who pass through will need, an intimidating-turned-affirming fundraising experience is a great place to start.
“I was terrified last year when I walked into Go Dance for my first lesson,” says Jumonville. “It is hard to explain. But it truly was one of the absolute best experiences of my life. And the professional dancers we work with are so patient and kind. It was incredible to conquer my fear and win, but isn’t that what these kids do on a daily basis?”