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Purpose-Driven Life

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One local teacher finds inspiration through philanthropy. LarisaFEAT
Thirteen years ago, Larisa Gray traveled to New Orleans for the first time on a magazine assignment. “I was just mesmerized immediately,” says Gray, who formerly lived in Atlanta. “I fell in love.”

After making half a dozen visits to New Orleans the following year, Gray finally took the plunge and moved to the city, accepting a position as director of performing arts at the Contemporary Arts Center.

During her second year in New Orleans, Gray attended an informational meeting for the Pussyfooters — then a fledgling marching club founded by a group of women who wanted to have fun, dance and march in parades, while doing community service and empowering women. Since its inception, the organization has raised money for charities and nonprofits benefiting women, including Women for Women International and Lindy’s Place. Gray was immediately attracted.

“The thing that was really interesting to me was how the Pussyfooters were addressing service to the community and particularly to women,” Gray says. “It hit every ‘Oh, can I please do this?’ button.”

Gray joined the Pussyfooters as a general member in 2001. Both the club’s size and its community involvement grew rapidly, and, after marching as a general member for several seasons, Gray became a dance captain. With her guidance, the Pussyfooters identified other members with leadership potential, and the group soon began choreographing its own dance routines.

For nearly five years, Gray’s work at the Contemporary Arts Center fulfilled her. But she felt the need to make a more lasting impact. “The longer I stayed in the arts, the longer I felt the desire to be teaching more than presenting,” she says. Gray heeded her urge to teach in 2005 and began to transition out of arts administration into her new field.

Gray now teaches English to eighth-graders at Lusher Charter School. “A purpose-driven life is important to me,” she says. “I like doing work I can feel really good about.”

In keeping with this personal goal, Gray decided that she wanted to focus more on the Pussyfooters’ mission of service to women. When the Pussyfooters regrouped post-Hurricane Katrina, they “went big,” Gray says, hosting the first annual Blush Ball in 2009 to benefit the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children (often simply referred to as Metro).

Gray chairs the Blush Ball event and speaks highly of the Metropolitan Center’s services. “Metro is the oldest and largest network of advocacy services for victims of domestic violence in New Orleans,” she says. The organization provides resources and support, including a 24-hour crisis line, counseling, shelter, legal advocacy and medical care, for both male and female victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.

When garnering donor support for the fundraiser, Gray focuses on presenting concrete examples of what donations to Metro can do. “A $1,300 donation can cover a woman and two children in the shelter for six months,” she says. “If you buy a table [at the event], you’re making a contribution to that $1,300 number.” The Pussyfooters hope to raise $30,000 for Metro at the 2014 Blush Ball.

The fifth annual Blush Ball: Party with a Purpose will be held on Jan. 18 at The Cannery in Mid-City and will feature music by Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and The Wild Magnolias, and DJ Quickie Mart, as well as performances by the Pussyfooters.