She lives in Tampa, Florida, but has travelled to 13 countries in the last four years. She and her volunteers have reached out to orphans, children below the poverty line, those fighting addictions and even holocaust survivors through the simple but artful hula hoop.
Carissa Caricato, who worked at the Crisis Centre of Tampa Bay and runs the non-governmental organistion Hoola for Happiness, is now in Mumbai to spread her message of happiness to trafficked women. "I love this country and the people so much. These girls have touched my heart in a way that I will never be the same again," says Carissa, who makes and donates hula hoops and also teaches how to hoop. Hoola for Happiness volunteers have donated hoops to 41 countries, including Haiti, Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, Poland, Ukraine, the Dominican Republic, Cambodia and Fiji. In India, they have a base in the Jharkhand, capital Ranchi, where they hand-make hoops.
Between September last year and February this year, they started the process of making 1,000 hoops, which they finished in April. In January, Carissa brought 100 of these hoops to Mumbai while 200 were distributed amongst orphans in Hyderabad and Ongole. This April, they distributed more hoops in north India.
And now she's focusing her attention on Mumbai. Seven weeks; seven homes. "We work with several NGOs in Mumbai and this time we are reaching out to girls who have been rescued from sex trafficking and abusive situations. We hope to use the hoop dance to bring joy, hope and freedom into the homes through dance lessons, creative exercises and motivational lessons," she says. Carissa and her team teach the women to tell 'a' story, any story, through the hoop. They encourage them by telling their own stories and more often than not, by the end of it, "the girls share their story. They dance their story. They begin to trust us. They are unique and have a purpose in life and we want them to believe that," smiles Carissa.
One issue the girls struggle with, she says, is embodiment; connecting body to mind after so much abuse. Dance is a wonderful and non-threatening way to start connecting movement again to feelings.
"What is cool about the hoop is that it represents a safe and sacred space for them to move again. Hooping leads to lots of laughing and smiling as well, renewing a sense of childhood and play. Hoop dancing is not an organised dance like ballet. There is no such thing as right or wrong. Everyone can hoop no matter their size, background or whether they think they can dance or not. It's just one step in a whole stream of rehabilitation techniques on their path to healing, self-sufficiency and gaining a sense of accomplishment," believes Carissa.
Her dream is to one day help provide jobs for these girls through making hoops or other hoop-related products or even becoming teachers themselves and continuing to spread the joy.