Candace Corsaro is a businesswoman, a community activist and a cancer supervisor. But before she was any of those, she was a mom. And moms never forget the children in their lives.
In the late 1970s, Corsaro and her family lived in the then-new Monteagle Ridge Estates in Niagara Falls. Her most vivid memory of that time is the night one of her neighbors killed her two children.
"My children who were 4, 5 and 6 played with two small children in that complex every day," she recalls. "Those children did not have much so that Christmas we bought them some toys. They came over Christmas Eve to play and we gave them their presents but they never came back.
"Their mom killed them that very night. My children were too small to understand or remember. But to this day, I do."
Fast forward to October 2005. When national news coverage focused on the tragic murder of Kelsey Smith Briggs, the 2-year-old who was murdered in her mother's Oklahoma home after months of suffering broken bones, bruises and other injuries, the memories came flooding back.
Over time, Corsaro decided to do something about it.
"For years I have been working closely with our local police and fire departments and have heard the stories of the small children abused and murdered in our community. It just hit home," Corsaro said.
The product of her passion is a dinner dance to be held April 15 at Convention Center Niagara Falls, 101 Old Falls St. The event is called Gala for Hope and its organizers hope to raise thousands of dollars to support the efforts of two agencies - Family & Children's Service of Niagara and the Child Advocacy Center of Niagara - to protect local children from abuse.
"I want everyone to know that we can play an active role in protecting our children," Corsaro said. "Proceeds from the Gala for Hope will provide support for the prevention and treatment of child abuse right here in our community."
Gala for Hope represents a unique partnership in which two local not-for-profit agencies that are not otherwise connected have joined forces to work hand-in-hand for a common cause. The April date was chosen to coincide with Child Abuse Prevention Month.
The need for services is acute as child abuse is a growing problem across Niagara County, representatives from both agencies said.
In 2010, the Child Advocacy Center of Niagara opened 258 cases of suspected child abuse. It was the most ever and represented a 19 percent increase over 2009. The 784 counseling visits provided by the center in 2010 also set a new record.
Healthy Families Niagara, a child abuse prevention program provided by Family & Children's Service of Niagara in conjunction with the Niagara County Department of Social Services, showed a 30 percent caseload increase in eastern Niagara County from 2008 to 2010, as well as a 30 percent increase in North Tonawanda over the same three years.
According to New York State Central Registry statistics for Child Abuse and Maltreatment, Child Protective Services investigated 3,440 reports of suspected child abuse, neglect or maltreatment in Niagara County in 2010.
"That's a very troubling 17 percent increase in just two years," said Child Advocacy Center Executive Director Laura Kelemen.
PASSAGE for Parents, a child abuse prevention program for households at risk of having their children taken from them, had a waiting list for services all of last year. Households are referred to this Family & Children's Service program by New York State Child Protective Services.
Last year, 49 percent of those referrals came from western Niagara County, 39 percent from the eastern end of the county and 12 percent from the North Tonawanda area.
"It's clear to us that child neglect, physical abuse and child sexual abuse are impacting families all across the county in urban, suburban and rural communities," said Ken Sass, president & CEO of Family & Children's Service of Niagara Inc. "Ms. Corsaro is obviously very passionate about this issue and we applaud her efforts to support our agency and the Child Advocacy Center in our combined efforts to not only prevent child physical and sexual abuse but to help those affected by abuse to heal."
The Gala for Hope will begin with cocktails at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m. and dancing at 9 p.m. with music by JoyRyde. Tickets are $75 per person or $140 per couple and available by calling 285-6984.
"This will be a fabulous evening for a most worthwhile cause, the well-being of our children," Kelemen said. "We have every hope that this gala will be a big success."
Family & Children's Service of Niagara has served the Niagara one family at a time since 1895. Its mission is to strengthen and care for children, adults and families in need by providing quality human services that effect positive, meaningful changes in their lives. Learn more at www.niagarafamily.org.
The Child Advocacy Center of Niagara, a service of Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, is a countywide resource providing a place for multi-disciplinary teams to investigate allegations of child abuse in a child-friendly environment. To learn more, visit www.cacofniagara.org.