Carissa Caricato is leaving her family and her first “real” job as marketing and communications for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay in Carrollwood to pursue domestic and global missionary work.
With the job, she found success and lasting friendships. Through the missionary work, she found herself.
When Carissa returned from a recent missionary trip to Haiti, she felt discontent behind her desk. “I wrestled with being restless and wanting to do so much more.”
On July 29, in an economy where employment is hard to come by, she voluntarily said goodbye to her mentors, friends, and job security and is risking everything to follow her passion: Hoola for Happiness.
Carissa said that her goal is “to become the first hula hooping missionary ever.”
Hoola for Happiness was only founded a year ago and is in the process of becoming an official nonprofit organization, specifically through a unexpected donation of $1,500 by someone that Caricato met who told her that she felt "led" to give away the money.
"I have never been blessed so much in a single moment that someone would have so much confidence in a dream that they would give to that dream,” said Caricato.
Hoola for Happiness’ mission statement is to “spread the joy of hooping to the world one hoop at a time, one life at a time."
The organization's start was somewhat of an accident.
In 2009, Caricato took a local hula hoop exercise class through Hoola Monsters, a class that teaches hoola hooping techniques, where she discovered the “travel hoop." So she decided to combine her love of hooping with her passion for missionary work.
She took some travel hoops with her to her second trip to Haiti in December of 2009 - just 12 days before the earthquake - and began documenting her experience on an online blog and Facebook.
As soon as people hear about her simple, yet effective plan to “help people find their joy,” doors swing open.
The concept has gained momentum both locally and globally and through many synergistic collaborations, including Hoopnotica who recently donated hoops.
“What’s so cool about the hulas is that they can go anywhere, with any missionary group, so we are working with a lot of different ministries,” said Caricato. “In Haiti, these kids had never seen a hula hoop. It was so much fun and just helped with the language barrier.”
In two years, she has made four mission trips and has brought hoops to children in Haiti, London, Kenya, and Uganda, and has another trip to Haiti next week with Feeding Children Everywhere, a nonprofit that helps combat world hunger.
At 25, an age where most are looking forward to the next high paying position and more prestigious job title, Caricato has found her contentment in going backwards.
“I’m selling everything in my house, all my furniture and clothes," she said. "The less stuff I have, the happier I am.”
Caricato said her lease is up in November, but says she has help to make the transition.
“I already have lots of people willing to let me stay with them," she said. "It’s like I’m living like a college student again. I don’t need all this stuff weighing me down. I want to be free to move quickly. Now, if an opportunity arises, I can just go.”
She said that when she travels, she is completely content living out of one suitcase.
“Then you come home and there’s all these knick knacks and craziness, groceries that end up going bad because you don’t use them," she said. "My thought is, what do I need from day to day?”
And day to day is how she’s going forward. She’s recently connected with Feeding Children Everywhere and their mission statement perfectly harmonized with Hoola for Happiness.
“When I was in Africa, God laid a vision on my heart for what Hoola for Happiness is going to be," she said. "When I came back and talked to Don (Campbell) of Feeding Children Everywhere, his vision is identical. We have a huge heart for the youth of America, awakening something in them that wants to help the world and share the love of God. He does that through food and I do it through hula hoops.”
Campbell said that when they bring food to Third World countries, adding Hoola for Happiness was a perfect fit.
“We bring a natural component in food. Most of these kids don’t know what a hoola hoop is… or what joy is. Carissa’s mission statement is to bring joy one hoop at a time. Adding this additional piece can teach the kids to smile, to experience real joy that can last.”
Caricato is looking at doing hula hoop jams locally and food packing events all across the nation.
Last week, at Berryism in Carrollwood, about 50 teens from Van Dyke Church hosted a packing event. In two hours, they packed 10,000 meals for Haiti.
“They raised the money for the food and decorated the boxes with sweet messages for the kids," she said. "The boys were hooping on the side of the road to get people to come in and donate."
Dave Burton, owner of Berryism, jumped at the food packing idea when Caricato approached him.
"I thought it was a fantastic idea; anything that gets young people together helping the community," he said. "I know Carissa from being a customer at both Berryism locations. She’s just a great person. I was estatic to help her out in any way I could.”
Caricato is proud that she’s been able to get people excited from an early age about giving back to the community.
“One little tiny thing they do can make such a huge difference to a child, a family,” she said. “It’s been really cool to just follow a dream that started in a journal, began as a hobby and pursue it wherever it takes me. Someone bigger than myself is working behind the scenes to ordain all of this, and it’s just so exciting to see it unfold.”