Friends, family holding virtual fundraiser for founder of Litchfield County dance school

TORRINGTON — Donna Bonasera’s name is well-known in the dance school community. When she was struck down by a debilitating stroke in December, the community responded with love and support.

Bonasera, a professional dancer, founded and directed Connecticut Dance Theatre in Watertown in 1989. The school’s mission as a nonprofit was “to provide quality training in dance and other related art-forms.”

She taught students of all ages, from toddlers to seniors, and staged numerous performances including the well-attended “Nutcracker” during the holiday season. The school offered appreciation classes in classical ballet, jazz, tap and hip hop. Because of her limitations after the stroke, Bonasera made the difficult decision to close the dance school — for now, anyway.

Over the history of Connecticut Dance Theatre, Bonasera’s students have gone on to professional careers with prestigious ballet companies, become featured performers on Broadway and arts executives worldwide, according to her niece, Angela Sieller.

Sieller is now holding a virtual fundraising walk for Bonasera to help raise money for out-of-pocket medical expenses. The Tutu Trot, which encourages people to walk their own 5K route for $25 and post photos of themselves while they walk, is scheduled for May 14.

“This way, you can do it at your own pace,” Sieller said. “I’ll be starting from the Farmington Trail in Burlington, but people can walk anywhere they want.”

The stroke

Sieller was on the phone with Bonasera on Dec. 3 when Bonasera began complaining that she felt dizzy and couldn’t see straight, she said.

“I told her to get a drink of water, and the next thing, her speech started slurring,” Seiller said. “I panicked and called 911. We rushed her to the hospital, and it turned out she had a brain bleed and a stroke.”

Sieller, a Torrington native who now lives in Burlington with her husband and children, said Bonasera had no movement on her left side for about a week after the stroke. When she returned home, she was able to move, but with tremendous weakness in her lower body.

“She’s having trouble with her hands right now,” Sieller said. “She had a setback last week; she fell, but she’s doing much better. She’ll start physical therapy this week, for her arms and hands.”

Meanwhile, her hospital care and medical bills are mounting.

“All of this has been hard,” Sieller said. “As amazing as Donna is in the dance world, the nonprofit world can be challenging. She can’t go to work so she closed her studio, and she isn’t medically cleared to teach, so she can’t do that either. She has no source of income coming in at this point.”

Bonasera has applied for disability, and is awaiting approval, Seiller said. Health insurance is limited, and while Medicaid helped with the bills from Waterbury Hospital, where she was treated, Bonasera still owes thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs, her niece said.

Help Hope Live

Sieller chose Help Hope Live, which specializes in medical care fundraisers in particular, to help raise money for the bills. As soon as Bonasera’s fundraising page was online, the donations started coming in, Seiller said. As of Friday, the fundraiser had collected $4,000 in donations.

Bonasera had a hard time accepting the idea at first, Sieller said.

“She fought me on this for a while, because she’s so proud,” she said. “But she has students all over the world, and when the word got out, people wanted to help... I said she has to let them help her.”

Seiller said she was nervous when the fundraiser went live April 8, but within an hour, there were more than $500 in donations coming in.

“Within 24 hours, she had more than $2,500 raised,” Seiller said. “She’s had multiple shares of the link on other people’s pages, from her students.”

Sieller chose Help Hope Live because of the work it does.

“This is all they do; help families with a medical crisis that needs help with medical bills,” she said. “And if there’s any money left after her bills are paid, they’ll put it into a fund in case she needs it.”

Emily Progin, public relations and communications coordinator for the Pennsylvania-based fundraising company, said they are often contacted by clients like Donna Bonasera.

“Our main purpose is to provide fundraising campaigns to protect a person’s eligibility for benefits, if there are any available,” Progin said. “We directly pay her medical bills using the money that’s been raised, for copays, medications, physical therapy. Insurance rarely pays for a vehicle or home modification, so we can use the money for that. She can keep fundraising with us for a lifetime if that’s needed.”

Progin said she is hopeful Bonasera will recover from the stroke.

“We have seen some really strong recovery journeys for people living with strokes,” she said. “Maybe she can get back some of what she’s lost.”

A close family

Sieller is determined to help her aunt any way she can.

“She’s one of my best friends — she’s like a sister to me,” she said. “I worry for my mother (Bonasera’s sister) Linda Dimauro, because she’s one of Donna’s primary caregivers, and she also has my 95-year-old grandmother. So it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster.

“My mother’s a miracle worker, but she just retired; and she’s spent the whole time taking care of her mother and Donna,” she said.

Sieller is very hopeful for Bonasera’s recovery, however.

“Donna’s one of the strongest women I know, and she’s proving that now; she’s come so far in just a few months,” she said. “But it’s heart-wrenching, because she’s still got a long way to go.”

Seiller said she keeps telling Bonasera that she still has to get one more season of “The Nutracker in.”

“My step-daughter was in it, and I want to have one more with my stepdaughter and my son dancing in it,” she said. “He’ll be 5 in May, and my daughter will be 13 at the end of June.”

Bonasera is recovering and was unavailable to comment directly for this story.

Donations for Donna Bonasera can be made at Checks can be mailed to Help Hope Live, 2 Radnor Corporate Center, Suite 100, 100 Matsonford Road, Radnor, PA 19087, with “In Honor of Donna Bonasera” in the memo. Registration information for the Tutu Trot can be found at