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Drew Wesche, of Ledyard, had put his dancing shoes away after he took lessons for his daughter's wedding in 2005. But he has since dusted them off now that he's starring in "Dancing with Our Heroes," Connecticut's version of "Dancing with the Stars," in Hartford on Sunday.
The Fred Astaire Dance Studios in the New England region have partnered with Friends of Fisher House Connecticut to put on the fundraiser. Proceeds from "Dancing with Our Heroes" will be used to build the state's first Fisher House - a place where families can stay for free on the grounds of the VA Connecticut Healthcare System in West Haven when a relative is hospitalized for a combat injury, illness or disease.
Wesche learned of the fundraiser when Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Mystic started looking for veterans to pair with instructors for the gala. Wesche asked fellow service member Amie Blum if she wanted to dance, too.
Blum, of Groton, said she had never thought about dancing, but decided to learn at the Mystic studio because it was "a new challenge for an awesome cause."
"We've come a long way in providing support, especially to the injured or wounded or sick veterans, and we're doing more and more every day to support the families," Wesche said. "This is one more thing that takes the burden off the families and veterans."
Wesche said he can now dance without tripping and stepping on his instructor's feet. He will perform a swing dance, and Blum said she is excited to dance the salsa. She plans to continue dancing even after the gala.
Friends of Fisher House Connecticut is trying to raise $3 million by the end of 2014 to build the home. The national organization, the Fisher House Foundation, will match the funds, said Kevin Creed, chairman of the Connecticut charity and a retired Army major.
About $750,000 has been donated in the past two and a half years, Creed added, and the goal for the gala is to raise an additional $200,000. Construction could begin in April 2015.
Tickets are still available to Dancing with our Heroes at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, and the dancers are competing online at http://dancingwithourheroes.com to win the "People's Favorite" Award.
The votes, for $1 each, will be accepted before and during the competition, which can be viewed live by going to the website.
"The response this has generated has been phenomenal," Creed said. "People really love that 'Dancing with the Stars' show."
Earlier this week, Blum had about 600 votes and Wesche had more than 400. But another dancer was in the lead with 1,800 votes and several others had more than 1,000.
The local dancers are "on the low end of the spectrum" for votes, Creed said, "So come on, New London has to step up!"
Close to 60 service members, veterans and relatives of service members have been practicing their routines with professional instructors during free, private lessons at 19 of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios throughout Connecticut, including in Mystic and Old Saybrook, and Massachusetts, since July 4.
The organizers intentionally picked the dates for the beginning and end of the event to coincide with the national holidays, according to Kim Haidinger, the director of the Fred Astaire Franchised Dance Studios New England region. Sunday is also the Marine Corps' 238th birthday.
Haidinger said the dance studios want to support the Fisher House and give the veterans who are dancing the "red carpet" treatment because "we really want to take care of those people who have worked so hard to take care of us."
"We found a way we could make an impact through dancing," she said. "That was so powerful and exciting."