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By Jonathan Camargo
Pictured: CREATE at Catapult, Gillian Fazio
You’d think a heart of gold would make it hard to dance, but Kevin Rios doesn’t let that weigh him down. He’s been calling Lakeland home for just over twenty years, and now Lakeland’s proud to call him its latest CityMaker.
A Day in the Life
Kevin is the owner of the Just Dance Academy located in Downtown Lakeland. Here, community members and local students alike perfect their dance techniques under the careful supervision of Kevin and his team. Remarkably enough, those same team members once walked through the academy’s doors themselves as eager-eyed pupils willing to learn.
“Outside of just recently with one girl, since we’ve been in business almost eight years now, I have never put up a help wanted sign, ever,” Kevin shared. “Everybody who has come through the door has come because of something different, and they’ve stayed to become the teachers that the studios have.”
Kevin’s days typically start when the sun rises, but thankfully they’re just as bright.
“I start teaching private lessons probably as early as 7, if not 8 o’clock in the morning,” Kevin said.
A handful of hours and many lessons later, Kevin’s taxiing students to his after-school dance program, where he’ll also teach classes if another member of his team isn’t already.
From the Waltz to the Cha Cha and the Foxtrot to the Swing, Kevin’s dance academy has something for everyone, but that’s not to say that the studio’s the only thing on Kevin’s plate.
Two years ago, he purchased Gina’s Costume Rentals and opened up Just Costumes Rentals & Sales. Featuring over 10,000 costumes, Just Costumes is almost guaranteed to have an outfit available for just about every occasion.
It’s not all business, though. Kevin also runs a nonprofit organization, known as Just Cares Inc. If he’s not tending to his dance studio or his other causes until it’s time for him to sleep, he’s probably hard at work planning and organizing our community’s next big civic event. You see, what started as a fall festival truly became so much more.
A Big Community, A Bigger Heart
Kevin’s passion underlies all that he does. It’s been there from the early days of his dance studio, and it’s guaranteed to be there today, too — one of Kevin’s hearty grins would ensure you of just that.
“I wanted to have a place where people felt like family,” Kevin said. “Where the average person can come and learn how to dance, and do more than that. To just reach or aspire to do anything that they wanted to do.”
In 2012, Kevin actualized that dream outside of just his dance studio. He saw there was a tangible need in our community for an alternative to Halloween. Knowing that there were many who didn’t believe in celebrating the holiday, Kevin proposed that Just Dance host a fall festival of sorts. With his vision in mind, Kevin was determined to make the festival a reality, but not without his fair share of adversity.
“Everyone doubted,” Kevin said. “I was like, ‘Look we’ll cover it ourselves and we’ll shut down the street.’“
And so, Kevin and his team made it so. Although the turnout wasn’t spectacular that first year, there was just something magical about that night in question. Something that would keep Kevin thinking about it over half a decade later.
“Everything that first year came about by a miracle and a half. I mean, it was like a deadline thing,” Kevin said. “Even though it was just a small amount of kids that came, it was the fact that it got done when everyone said that it couldn’t.”
Fast forward to 2018 and the nonprofit’s fall festival is set to celebrate its 7th anniversary just later this year. A community staple in its own right, Just Cares’ fall festival is one of downtown Lakeland’s largest events throughout the entire month of October. It’s also just one of the many ways Kevin shows that he cares.
Love, Without Borders
In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the Caribbean. In the midst of thousands of lost lives and billions of dollars in infrastructure damages, Kevin saw an opportunity to help, and he didn’t just run with it — he soared.
A hurricane refugee himself, Kevin saw firsthand the destruction that hurricanes can cause. He was living in Louisiana at the time of Hurricane Katrina, only to return to Lakeland with the most basic of his belongings.
When he heard of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, Kevin’s steadfast desire to help only deepened. Through Just Cares, Kevin proposed a simple yet incredibly important fundraiser.
“We wanted to raise a thousand toys to help an island that half the people didn’t really realize what was happening to them,” Kevin said.
With the number set, Kevin’s fundraising efforts hit full throttle. Through hard work, a myriad of connections, and a community with heart, Kevin and his nonprofit organization were able to collect an astounding 5,000 toys for the Puerto Rican people.
As Kevin’s fundraiser surpassed all expectations, he came into contact with a pilot who was willing to fly their thousands of toys to the afflicted area. Yet, this was only half the story.
Along with his team’s charitable contributions, Kevin sent a representative from Lakeland to Ceiba, Puerto Rico, to meet the mayor of the hurricane-afflicted town. This wasn’t just going to be an exchanging of hands, though — Lakeland visionaries don’t operate that way. Kevin and his team managed to bring Ceiba’s mayor back to Lakeland and have the mayor award him a key to the city.
“And we did all that literally with a budget of less than probably $2,000,” Kevin shared.
Maria Torres, an integral member of Kevin’s nonprofit team and an instructor at his dance studio, worked diligently alongside Kevin to help make the fundraiser a success. Today, the two still work closely together.
“He is truly that person,” Maria said. “He doesn’t take no for an answer, and he will literally stop eating to make sure somebody’s okay.”
“I would tell anybody that there’s no other place but here.
“I would tell anybody that there’s no other place but here.
On the Homefront
Perhaps the greatest of Kevin’s contributions can be seen in your day-to-day passings with strangers whose stories you’d never know.
“We’ve managed to help some people who’ve been homeless or without, and find out that they went from staying on the street to now having an apartment or a car,” Kevin said.
Whether he’s just finding a couch for someone to sleep on or employing someone who’d otherwise be deemed “unemployable”, Kevin’s impact in our community is best felt through the human-first connections he’s fostered unconditionally. These organic connections are made in his studio, too.
“People have had some traumatic experiences happen and use the dance studio to lean on,” Kevin shared. “For me, those are incredible moments.”
Although Kevin is a certified ballroom dance instructor by trade, his heart lies unapologetically with the people he’s able to help.
“Just Dance… everybody thinks that the name means its literal face, which is ‘just dance,’ but it’s not. You do everything but just dance,” Kevin said. “The place is just synonymous for the fact that students come and hang out, or people come in and eat on their lunch break, or people just hang out and eat afterwards. They’ll talk and they’ll gather, and it becomes their social spot.”
All for Lakeland
Whether it’s the locale, the people, or a probable mix of the two, Kevin’s fondness for our city trumps all else.
“When the hurricane hit us here, my first reaction was I stayed in the dance studio while the whole storm came and I took Instagram pictures, not because I wanted to highlight what was happening, but because I wanted others to know what happened to Lakeland,” Kevin shared.
It’s his love for the city that’s so proudly reciprocated in every event he hosts, even when the odds seem nigh impossible to put them on. Just last year, Kevin and his nonprofit sponsored a Three Kings Day event hosted by the former Lakeland Downtown Partnership. $5,000 and a live nativity scene later, the celebration was a resounding success. Did we mention they had camels there, too?
“We barely had enough to pay the lights and we found a way to do all this,” Kevin said.
Ultimately, it’s the distinct Lakeland culture that keeps Kevin keeping on.
“This town is special,” Kevin said. “I would tell anybody that there’s no other place but here.”
Tiptoeing Towards the Future
As our town grows and becomes a hallmark of the Central Florida community, Kevin wants us to remember what sets us apart — what makes Lakeland, Lakeland.
“Innovation’s great and we’re changing with the times, which is wonderful, but let’s not lose this feeling we have now,” Kevin said. “There’s something unique about why this town is the way it is and it’s the reason why people like coming here.”
Kevin echoes that very sentiment in his message to other community leaders, whom he implores to remember that their businesses, whatever they may be, are more than just “something that makes money.” They’re part of our community at large and they shape the living experience for everyone involved.
For the CityMakers of tomorrow, Kevin has but one request.
“Always ask yourself why not,” Kevin said. “Why can’t you do it? Why is it impossible? Why hasn’t it been done? Don’t limit yourself.”
It’s just in Kevin’s nature to believe in the dreamers because he’s one, too.
“I came from a spot that was really rough and someone gave me an opportunity, and I swore if I ever got a chance, I’d give back the same way,” Kevin said. “That’s just it. It’s not that you’re doing it because you feel like you’re gonna get something in return, it’s that you giving is what you’re getting back in return.”
Lucky for us, Kevin’s giving knows no bounds, even when the days are long and the journey there even more so.
“The door’s open and every day I look forward to what’s new that’s going to happen. It’s stressful, it’s tiring, but it’s worth it, and I wouldn’t change a single thing to get to this point.”