Monday, November 24, 2008

Pyjama Pary raises funds for the visually impaired

They dressed in plaid flannel PJs, feather boas, bunny slippers and tiaras. More than 300 women munched on hors d'oeuvres, danced and perused vendors offering everything from acupuncture to gourmet dipping sauces.

The occasion for getting all "dressed down": the second annual Girls' Night Out Pajama Party, a sold-out benefit Thursday evening for the Little Lighthouse for the Blind.

"Most times, women are the nurturers, the heath care providers. We thought, let's let the women have a night off and a night out, while raising money for a great cause," said organizer Dr. Keith Stolte.

An ophthalmologist and founder of Stolte Eye Center, Stolte said he was looking for a way to raise awareness for children's eye issues and raise funds for the Little Lighthouse for the Blind, the youth division for Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind. Dressed a little like Hugh Hefner, he was all duded up in a red-checkered smoking jacket and cowboy hat for the pajama party, which took place at the Knights of Columbus hall on Spring Hill Drive.

"What a wonderful event. This has been so much fun," said Debbie Burge, 53.

Donning a blue fleece robe, curlers and a cucumber facial mask, Burge was at the event representing the Florida Cancer Institute — there to network and help raise money for a good cause. Grinning from ear to ear, she said she had her husband drop her off so she wouldn't be driving alone in such a getup.

"Who loves children more than women?," said Valerie Ciaccio, marketing director for Stolte Eye Center. "So we came up with the idea (of a pajama party) and focused on a night for women that was something novel, fun and comical."

And this night of girl talk, dancing and shopping resulted in a donation of $7,000 from Stolte to the Lighthouse, with checks still coming in. Last year a donation of $8,000 was made.

"What if your child was born blind? Where would you turn? Your child could lead a normal life given the right training," said Sylvia Stinson-Perez, executive director of Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind, 6492 California St., south of Brooksville, a nonprofit group that serves Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

The Little Lighthouse is a program that helps parents and children from birth to age 5. The proceeds from the pajama party go to support the agency's early intervention services, said Stinson-Perez, who explained that visually impaired children need to learn to rely on their other senses to help them navigate the world.

"Children learn to crawl because they are going after a toy. Visually impaired children need to be motivated by their other senses such as sound and touch," Stinson-Perez said, adding that the agency's services teach moms and babies to learn together.

And the money is desperately needed.

The Little Lighthouse programs for families are funded with a grant from the state of about $20,000 per year — and that's for all three counties.

"This is such an area of need, and with budget cuts across the state, Dr. Stolte's efforts are so appreciated," said Stinson-Perez, adding that his donation will keep their project afloat, perhaps even enabling them to start a play group so that babies can reach out to other children, and moms can reach out to other mothers.

"Our goal is to bring (visually impaired children) to the level of other children by the time they start school," Stinson-Perez said.

The fun Thursday night was nonstop.

Spring Hill hellion Jeanne Dawson, 74, dressed as a "rebel granny," wearing a shocking pink do-rag tied on her close-cropped hair, skull-and-crossbones patterned sweat pants and a tank top emblazoned with the word "rebel." She accompanied her daughter, Barbara Dawson, 45, who was clad in a floor-length leopard, silk nightie and matching leopard slippers. They both heard of the event and decided that "it sounded like fun."

Watching from the edge of the dance floor, they applauded the night's entertainment. Female impersonator Alexis Collins, who is legally blind and a father of five, wowed the crowd with a Liza Minelli performance. Swooner Louie Fortunato, with a sound similar to Engelbert Humperdinck, had everyone singing. Women elbowed onto the dance floor for the "Cha Cha Slide" and other line dances. And the night ended with conga lines, belly dancing and an abundance of door prizes and raffles.

The shocker of the evening was a serious introduction to thank several prominent men in the community — County Commissioner John Druzbick; former commissioner Chris Kingsley; recent School Board candidate Gene Magrini; recent supervisor of elections candidate Gus Guadagnino, and Stolte — all of whom then broke into a raucus rendition of YMCA by the Village People, complete with full costume.

"Last year was so good, I had to find a way to top it," Ciaccio said.

Asked why the event was a women-only affair, Stolte smiled.

"Most men have to get dragged to a fundraiser. They don't want to go," he said. "Tonight is all about letting the women have a good time and leaving the husbands home."


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