Using ninja warriors to help build Jacksonville Area Legal Aid's capital

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Jacksonville Area Legal Aid is joining forces with ninja warriors.

The inaugural Florida’s Ultimate Ninja Warrior Championship is April 19 at Velocity Air Sports. It’s a benefit to raise funds for local legal aid and the first major event planned by Carter DeWitt, who in August became JALA’s chief development officer.

The event will allow participants to compete on a professional ninja warrior obstacle course. It is the final qualifying event for the Ultimate Ninja Warrior Athletic Association’s season, she said.

Spectator tickets will be available to the public.

The goal is to raise $80,000 for JALA through registration fees and sponsorships collected by competitors.

It’s part of a campaign that will continue throughout 2016 to raise awareness of JALA and expand understanding of what the organization does for the community.

Many people’s perception of JALA is that it offers free legal representation for all types of cases, including criminal defense and personal injury law, but that’s not accurate, DeWitt said.

The agency’s 35 attorneys provide civil legal assistance to people and groups with special needs who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

“We keep roofs over heads and children in school. We help people keep their jobs. We protect veterans and the elderly,” she DeWitt.

A Pennsylvania native, she lived in Ponte Vedra for years and played on tennis teams at Marsh Landing Country Club.

Off the courts, she helped raise money for myriad causes and enjoyed helping local charities.

When her husband died in 2005, she decided to pursue a career in fundraising and took a job with a nonprofit in Palm Beach.

After a few years, DeWitt was “head-hunted to Washington, D.C.,” she said.

She went to work in 2009 as vice president of development for the Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy research organization.

DeWitt doubled the nonprofit’s revenue in four years and realized she found her career in philanthropic development.

“I knew if I could raise money for tax research, I could sell ice to Eskimos,” she said.

Her accomplishments in Washington got the attention of Florida Tax Watch and in 2013, she moved to Tallahassee as the public policy research organization’s senior vice president of development and marketing.

DeWitt discovered Tallahassee isn’t the Florida she wanted to live in. The college town that’s also the center of state government was too seasonal and there’s no beach.

“I got tired of Tallahassee and wanted to come home to Jacksonville,” she said.

After interviewing with JALA Executive Director Jim Kowalski, she knew she had found where she wanted to be.

“What we do is good for every resident of Jacksonville,” DeWitt said. “We give back to the community in the most basic ways.”

After the ninja warrior event, DeWitt said the next step in changing the organization’s image will be a television advertising campaign featuring clients and their stories of how they were helped by JALA.

It’s part of the plan to expand the organization’s philanthropic base beyond the local legal community.

She’s also planning the 17th annual Robert J. Beckham Equal Justice Awards on April 20 at the Omni Hotel. Former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham will be the keynote speaker.

After nine years in Washington and Tallahassee, DeWitt has come home for good and found a home at JALA.

“I hope this is my last and best job,” she said.

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