USF alumna finds hope in hula-hoops

Carissa Caricato, who graduated USF with a degree in mass communications, sends hula-hoops to girls around the world and believes simple joys can make a world of difference in the lives of the downtrodden and abused. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Sometimes it’s the simple joys in life that help people move on from a traumatic past. For USF alumna Carissa Caricato, the road to recovery from sexual abuse began in part with the joy of hula-hooping. 

However, when she first came to USF, she did not have a solid goal in mind and recovery still seemed far away.

“I didn’t have a lot of purpose, didn’t really know what do with my life,” she said. 

As a mass communications major with minors in communications and business, Caricato became involved in women’s studies classes that inspired her to work on issues such as sex trafficking and sexual violence.

Caricato said she then began a class project that eventually turned into N.I.T.E., an organization on campus that focuses on sexual violence prevention. This was her first experience with activism, and it stuck. 

She said she first realized the power of storytelling after she came back to USF in 2009 to tell her story of abuse publicly for the first time during N.I.T.E.’s Take Back the Night event.

That same year, Caricato went on a trip to Haiti that combined hula-hooping with missionary work.

“When you give someone a voice or a stage, that can really be the beginning of the healing process,” she said. 

Caricato said hula-hooping is a nonobjectifying way to express herself through dance, which she said helps women and girls who have been involved in dancing as part of their experience in sex trafficking by reframing their relationship with dance. She said the innocence and freedom of hula-hooping has helped her and others.

“We use hoops as movement therapy,” she said. 

Caricato said faith and hula-hooping helped her recover from her past as a victim of sexual violence. She said she began regularly attending church again, as well as recognizing a calling toward helping others who had gone through similar experiences.

Caricato said her time in N.I.T.E. and in Haiti, along with working at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, combined with her hobby of hooping to give her the idea of bringing the freedom of dance to everyone.

“You just want more and more people to share your joy,” she said. “Even if you don’t identify as a dancer, (hula-hooping) is so inclusive.”

She said, prior to hooping, she had never danced seriously before. She said hooping is “childlike,” “free” and “easy,” allowing anyone to participate. 

Caricato’s organization, Hoola for Happiness, operates in three countries, including the U.S., Brazil and India. All three locations make hula-hoops, with 4,000 having been made so far across the three nations, according to Caricato. India has produced just over 1,500 hoops alone.

The hoops in India are made in Jharkhand, in the northeast. Most of the organization’s community projects in India are done in Mumbai, which, along with Kolkata, is one of the main hubs for sex trafficking in the world, according to Caricato. 

According to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, about 2.5 million people are currently victims of human trafficking, with 43 percent of those being funneled into sex trafficking. The vast majority, or 98 percent, of these victims are female. 

Caricato said the main ways other students can get involved in making a difference are to focus on passion and commitment, along with having a healthy amount of courage. 

“You have to know you’re passionate about something,” she said. “You cannot be in it for the money or fame. When there’s no support for it yet, people think you’re literally crazy.”

Caricato also said growing community support is important, because it is impossible to overcome huge obstacles alone. She works with a team of what she calls “dance teachers motivated by faith.”

“Ideas that are the best ones aren’t for us, they’re for the world,” she said, adding that sharing ideas is important for the benefit of everyone.

Hoola for Happiness has internship and volunteer opportunities available, which Caricato said would be positive for USF students. The Tampa office is located in Ybor. 

Caricato recently left for India and will stay there for three months to continue her mission of helping people find joy through a healthy and positive outlet.