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People and Companies Women's Inspired Leadership

Spirit of Engagement: Andrea Eliscu

Photography by Julie Fletcher

Andrea Eliscu

Founder

Dueling Dragons of Orlando

and Medical Marketing Inc.

“We really are not a competitive program. We are a mentoring program. We just do it in a dragon boat. As they get to know each other, they change. It’s just magical.” – Andrea Eliscu

Sometimes Andrea Eliscu finds herself in situations that seem too coincidental to be real. Like the time she flew to London as a tourist for the queen’s jubilee, bumped into handlers for Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana at a first-aid trailer, and received a VIP tour after mentioning she was an American nurse. Or the time she was in the front row at the Indian Wells Open in California with tennis icon Rod Laver and found out a man sitting two seats over had been close childhood friends with her sister in Chicago.

So she smiles and shrugs when she talks about how she came to be the founder of Dueling Dragons, an Orlando program that partners inner-city teens with law enforcement officers on teams racing dragon boats. Typically about 41 feet long, the vessels hold up to 22 people, seated two-by-two, who work in unison to glide through the water.

“What I do with Dueling Dragons is a volunteer labor of love,” says Eliscu, a four-time business book author and founder of Medical Marketing Inc. “I put more time into that than I do into my company, which is 34 years old now. But it’s where I want to be and it’s what I want to do.”

Learning to Row

Eliscu remembers being at an executive women’s retreat in Sedona, Arizona, where she was feeling inadequate among powerful women like then-Walt Disney World President Meg Crofton and a Canadian owner of 1,500 retail stores.

“I didn’t want to say anything personal about myself because I was feeling I was not like the rest of them,” she says. When it was her turn to speak, she shared that she had just joined the Orlando Rowing Club because she wanted to challenge herself and had never even climbed into a boat before.

Another participant suggested she get involved in dragon boating, a 2,500-year-old ancient Chinese water sport that has spread in popularity among breast cancer survivors who row to build upper body strength and camaraderie.

The coincidence was uncanny because Eliscu’s family had been touched by cancer many times. Her younger sister Carol had died from bone cancer at age 12 at a time when mentioning “the C-word” was taboo — an experience that forged Eliscu’s resolve as a high school senior to become a nurse, a career that later led her to marry a physician and start her business. Her mother and sister-in-law both died of cancer, and her younger sister Judy survived breast cancer twice.

“I thought, ‘I have female grandchildren, and I need to do something,’” Eliscu says. “This is the plague of my family. We are not strong in the cancer area.”

Enlisting Help

Eliscu reached out to influential people in Central Florida about setting up a dragon boat program to raise money for cancer research through Orlando Health, where her late husband had been a physician and she had been a nurse. Cheryl Collins with the Orlando Health Foundation, who today serves as executive director of the Orlando Ballet, pledged her support. Friend and neighbor Harriett Lake, the now-late philanthropist, agreed to finance the program for three years as long as Eliscu stayed involved. Eliscu told herself, “OK, universe, I guess I’m supposed to be doing this.”

Eliscu saw how well the dragon boat program worked for women with cancer. About that time, the fatal shootings of teenagers Trayvon Martin in Sanford and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, were fueling mistrust nationwide between inner-city communities and police.

Eliscu asked herself, “What would happen if we could get Orlando police officers and inner-city kids into a boat together? Would anything change? Could Orlando do it differently? Could the kids begin to change their families, and could the cops begin to change their squad-mates?”

She approached then-Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, now a U.S. congressional leader, who enlisted 10 SWAT officers and 10 kids. Demings also brought in her chief of staff, Lieutenant John Mina, who today serves as Orange County sheriff and is still involved in the program. The teens started seeking advice from the officers, including Lt. Debra Clayton, who took a personal interest in their schoolwork and family situations. Tragically, Clayton was fatally shot in the line of duty in January 2017 at a Walmart and is memorialized on the Dueling Dragons of Orlando website.

Safety and Trust

Today the teams travel around the country to compete in at least three festivals a year. The program’s annual budget of almost $180,000 in donated funds pays for local practices as well as away travel, lodging and food.

“I believe what is happening is they are seeing each other through a different lens. They are trusting each other in the boat because they’re keeping each other safe. So there’s been some really big magic.

“The kids wanted to be heard, they wanted to be seen, they wanted to belong,” Eliscu says. “They wanted boundaries, and we could give them those inside the safety of a dragon boat. So through this sport, we’ve been able to change lives one paddle stroke at a time.”


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About the author

Diane Sears

A career journalist, author and advocate for business growth, Diane Sears is the CEO, editor and publisher of i4 Business. She is also the founder and president of DiVerse Media LLC, which has handled content marketing projects including nonfiction books, white papers, executive speeches and scripts since 2000. She is co-founder of the nonprofit Go for the Greens Foundation, which helps connect women-owned and minority-owned business owners with growth opportunities internationally.

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