Because of her work with Dee Norton Lowcountry Children's Center, Lisa Rice had a revelation that few of us would associate with something so beautiful and quintessentially Charleston.

"I was sitting on the end of my dock on Hobcaw Creek watching a gorgeous sunset and thinking how blessed I was when I realized that sunsets often mean something different to abused children: the beginning of night-time," says Rice, of the fear that the darkness of night invokes in so many.

She has shared that revelation often in talking about the work of the Dee Norton center.

As a strong supporter, Rice says all it took was a visit to the center in 1998 to believe in its mission to provide protection and therapy to victimized local children and their families.

"Children are resilient and can be productive members of society with the right help," says Rice. "Abuse doesn't have to define them.'

Rice, along with her husband, attorney Joe Rice, have been major allies for the children's center since she joined the board in 1999.

An Indian, not a chief

Beverly Hutchison, now the center's development director, recalls that when Lisa joined the Dee Norton board in 1999, "she defined her role as 'an Indian, not the chief.' "

"However, her commitment to children and the children's advocacy center model created a strong leader not only for (the Dee Norton center) but for all abused children. Lisa is an advocate for children through her volunteerism, her creativity and her financial support beyond her service as a board member."

When the center reached a critical point because federal money for its children's advocacy center was not renewed, the Rices co-chaired the 2005 endowment drive, the Campaign for the Next Child. They kicked off the campaign with a "leadership gift of $1 million" and helped garner $3.5 million in pledges.

Hutchison says the campaign "ensured the future of the children's advocacy center in Charleston."

But Lisa also has brought some fun to the table.

In 2003, she created a new fundraiser, or "friend-raiser," called The Wild Woman Tea. The event involved board members inviting friends to donate $50 to the children's advocacy center to attend a ladies "tea party" and have fun while also learning about the center. The "wild" part of the tea party showed up in fashion themes.

For a decade, she hosted about 200 women in her house. Now, the party has moved to Charleston Place.

Hutchison says Rice continues to help in other ways, such as donating a stay at their private home in Colorado and aboard their yacht as auction items for Dee Norton's annual dinner fundraiser. Rice leverages additional support by offering a challenge to match donations pledged at the event.

Hutchison adds one such challenge resulted in the expansion of medical services to include a second examination room.

Mardi Gras honor

To highlight the center and honor the Rice family's efforts, The Krewe of Charleston have chosen the Rices as king and queen for its fifth annual Charleston Mardi Gras Royal Bal Masque, a formal masquerade ball, starting at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Charleston Area Convention Center.

A portion of proceeds from local Mardi Gras celebrations will benefit both Dee Norton and the New Orleans Children's Advocacy Center.

The Rices have a recent connection to New Orleans. Joe, a co-founder of the prestigious Motley Rice law firm, has spent a lot of time in the Big Easy after the BP oil spill. And while neither of them have direct ties to the area, both are looking forward to Saturday's festivities.

Small-town girl

Lisa Rice grew up in Newberry, the daughter of a plant manager and a school secretary.

"It was pretty normal," she says of her upbringing that included spending summers at Lake Murray and attending dances after football games.

Most people either went to Clemson or the University of South Carolina. She chose the latter, majored in psychology, and met Joe. They married in 1979. The couple moved to Barnwell, where she taught at Blackville-Hilda High School for nearly nine years.

Joe believes working at the school helped heighten her awareness of the welfare of children, but Lisa says being a teacher puts some distance between the role of the educator and the student and his or her home life.

The Rices, who had a daughter Ann E. in 1984, moved to Mount Pleasant three years later. But it was another decade before a neighbor told Lisa, who was searching for a cause to help out, about the Dee Norton center.

Focused effort

One visit to the center on Upper King Street was all it took for her to realize that it is a "powerful place." The statistics bear out that description.

According to its website, the center has served more than 21,000 children and their families since 1991.

In 2012, 1,351 children, an average of 26 a week, were seen. Among those, 44 percent were for sexual abuse and 29 percent for physical abuse. Demographically, 50 percent were African-American and 34 percent white; 52 percent were female; and 40 percent were age 6 and under.

Reflecting upon that first visit, Rice says she instantly knew "this was the place that I could do the most good."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.