By Krystel Knowles, Tampa Bay Times
Saturday, September 1, 2012 4:30am
Preparing for a Christmas trip to Haiti, Carissa Caricato packed the essentials: four sets of clothes and, of course, eight Hula Hoops.
Yes, Hula Hoops. When Caricato ventured to Haiti three years ago with two friends from South Tampa Fellowship Church, she took the old-school toys with her, never realizing she was embarking on a life-altering, faith-full trip.
Caricato spent the holidays with children and families at Haiti's Happy House Foundation, which provides housing for the homeless and poor families that reside in shacks.
"I spent my Christmas Day drinking coffee, sharing stories with the people from the village and singing Christmas carols," Caricato said.
During her stay at the village, Caricato taught children the joy of Hula Hooping and bonded with them. She learned how to use a Hula Hoop from a friend as a form of exercise but never thought it would be the vessel of spreading joy and laughter to others.
The experience of going to a foreign country, bringing Hula Hoops and being able to communicate with Haitians without speaking the language reawakened her faith in God.
The experience prompted Caricato, 26, to start her own nonprofit. Caricato founded Hoola for Happiness in July 2010 after receiving a $1,500 donation from an unknown woman. She decided the nonprofit would combine her two passions: hooping and her childhood dream of being a missionary.
Almost a year later, she left her job as marketing director at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay to concentrate all her energies on her upstart organization.
The nonprofit consists of bringing or sending Hula Hoops to impoverished countries worldwide, hooping at local orphanages and spreading joy. Caricato hoops on Wednesdays at Curtis Hixon Park and brings extra hoops so people can join in.
"Through my nonprofit I've discovered a new side of life," Caricato explained. "I started finding out what's my purpose."
For Caricato, finding the right path took nine years. At the age of 13, Caricato knew she wanted to be a faithful Christian and a missionary until one afternoon she found out her parents were getting a divorce.
"When I got the news about my parents, I told God that weekend that I hated him and didn't want anything to do with him," Caricato said. "For a long time I was involved with the wrong crowd."
But everything changed three years ago when she attended church with a friend and eventually went on the mission trip to Haiti.
"I went down to Haiti to help people but what I realized was my own brokenness," Caricato said.
While in Haiti, Caricato had the chance to reflect on her own life and how it changed after her parents divorced. Living in suburban Atlanta, drugs and alcohol dotted her high school days in private and public school, and a friend sexually assaulted her when she was 16.
Even after moving to Florida to attend the University of South Florida, Caricato found herself once again involved with people who weren't a positive influence. Her lifestyle led her to her arrest in 2005 for driving under the influence.
"I was doing lots of drugs," Caricato said. "I was not a big moral compass."
Being in Haiti made Caricato realize that people who are less fortunate and have a difficult life can still find happiness in the small things around them. The journey spiritually awoke something that was dormant in her life for more than 10 years: faith in God, faith in people and appreciation for the good things in life.
"One night while lying down, it all became clear," Caricato said. "I was going through a healing process."
Now the same inspiration that motivated Caricato is proving contagious.
Sarah Page, Caricato's friend and former co-worker, said she quit her job in December because she felt a deeper calling to pursue something new. In March, Caricato invited Page to go on a mission trip to Haiti if she could raise the funds to pay for her own trip.
Page, 23, succeeded, and a few months after going to Haiti, Caricato offered her a full-time position as a chief operating "hoolagan." Not only is Page in charge of marketing and promoting, she also developed a new type of hoop that can disassemble into five pieces for easier travel.
"We sell two kinds of travel hoops to help raise money to bring hoops to other countries," Page said. "It's been really cool to experience the whole world and this hoop has allowed us to do that."
The Underground Network, a conglomeration of 70 micro churches that believe in a mission of helping others, supports Hoola for Happiness by providing free office space in Ybor City.
"Once I heard what her nonprofit was all about I thought, 'This girl is awesome,' " said Jeremy Stephens, the Underground Network's director of training. "I would have never thought of a Hula Hoop nonprofit."
Hoola for Happiness has impacted 20 countries in two years, and the two Tampa residents want it to be recognized worldwide while creating a strong local movement.
"Haiti changed my life," Caricato said. "I went to change other people's lives and it completely changed my life.