Photos by AP imagery
Puzzle Pieces hosts many fundraisers and events throughout the year, but none are more famous than its annual Lip Sync Battle, which will take place on January 14. The battle pits local teams against each other through lip-sync performances, complete with choreography, elaborate costuming, and pyrotechnics.
The event raised over $140,000 in 2022, and organizers expect to exceed that number in 2023. Eight teams will square off this year in one-on-one matches, while three former champions will face off in the grand finale.
Two of those former championship teams are Mom Squad, a group of Whitesville moms, and the Hose Handlers, a team of firefighters’ wives. Leslie Leonard of the Mom Squad said her group first entered the contest when it was held virtually amid the pandemic, while the Hose Handlers, led by Cathy Thomas-Pickrell, first performed in 2021.
Both women said Amanda Owen, Executive Director at Puzzle Pieces, played a pivotal role in getting them involved.
“Amanda had asked on Facebook if a group of people might want to participate virtually,” Leonard said. “She wanted to bring in something different during the pandemic. I have a lot of cousins, and we all love Puzzle Pieces and work well together, so I asked my sister, Emily, and my cousin, Allie, to form a team with me. Several others support us off the stage, and that’s where they like it.”
Thomas-Pickrell’s primary inspiration stems from the loss of her daughter, Roxanne, who passed away from a brain tumor in November 2019. The Hose Handlers typically challenge the Handcuff Hunnies – wives of local police officers – but are excited to be part of the first-ever three-team challenge.
“The fire department and the police department used to battle, and I think the guys got tired of doing it,” Thomas-Pickrell said. “However, to my understanding, it was one of the crowd’s favorite battles. Amanda thought it may be fun to recruit fire and police wives to take their place, so we did.”
The Hose Handlers won their inaugural battle in 2021 and, despite falling short to the Handcuff Hunnies in 2022, raised more money than any group ever. Because of their fundraising efforts, Puzzle Pieces extended them the Community Award, which Thomas-Pickrell said speaks volumes of Roxanne’s lasting legacy.
“Much of the fundraising we do is done in my daughter’s name to keep her memory alive,” she said. “Once we finish the Lip Sync Battle and have ‘worn out our welcome,’ we will continue with most of our fundraisers, donating the proceeds to a local nonprofit. While this is a great way to support Amanda and Puzzle Pieces, it’s also an avenue for me to keep my daughter’s name and memory alive.”
Leonard traces her relationship with Owen back to their childhood days, which includes memories with Owen’s brother Nick, who was her primary inspiration for creating Puzzle Pieces. Owen left her career in special education and created Puzzle Pieces more than a decade ago to offer her brother and other students a community center to socialize with peers and learn skills for lifelong success.
Remaining close friends into their adult lives, Leonard remains steadfast in her efforts to support Owen and her mission at Puzzle Pieces.
“I had always donated to Puzzle Pieces, volunteered when I could for different events, and tried to show support when needed,” Leonard said. “Performing in the Lip Sync Battle and raising money throughout the year has been on another level for me. The thrill and fun of performing paired with a bigger purpose have been so fulfilling.
“It’s also fulfilling to see your childhood friend’s dreams and passion unfold into a big purpose.”
Both groups admitted the battle required long hours and a lot of work, not just memorizing lyrics and choreographing dances, but also fundraising. It’s the bond they form with their teammates, however, that keeps them coming back.
Thomas-Pickrell, Jean Owen, and Lori Zoglmann have been on the team since its inception, and have formed quite a bond. Owen crafted the name, and they all take great pride in being a part of something bigger than themselves. They also have a lot of fun.
“I think what I have gained most from the experience is a connection with the other women,” Thomas-Pickrell said. “I have always been friends with other firemen’s wives, but participating in this event has allowed me to get to know some of the wives on a deeper level. We spend a lot of time together between October and January fundraising and practicing.”
Leonard and her teammates Allie McDaniel and Emily Payne, along with the backstage crew, have also formed quite a connection over the past three years. They also enjoy connecting with other performers, and as the Hose Handlers said: it’s fun.
“I think my favorite is the bond our group has formed – it makes me teary-eyed to think about it,” she said. “Not only do I get to perform with my sister and my cousin, that is like a sister, but with a group of like-minded women that lift each other up, empower each other, cheer for each other in all aspects of life, including our lives outside of our Lip Sync Battle squad.”
Leonard added that the preparations for the event bring an entirely new meaning to the phrase “mom time,” and offers the perfect opportunity to raise money for such a worthy cause. She said the memories they’ve formed because of the battle are irreplaceable.
During the virtual competition, the Mom Squad leaned on their experiences with their high school dance team, and rallied off a Beyonce-themed performance. Last year, they continued their nod to Beyonce and operated under a “boss babes” theme, showing the crowd that “these moms still got it.”
The Hose Handlers pulled off a Christina Aguilera Moulin Rouge theme in 2021 before shifting to a Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation theme in 2022. Thomas-Pickrell said their costumes for last year were a hit, and they “nailed” some tough choreography.
Neither group would reveal much about their plans for this year. Thomas-Pickrell said fans would see glimpses of old and new movies, while Leonard simply said, “moms need to have fun too.”
Sponsored by Vineyard Primary Care, this year’s Lip Sync Battle begins at 7:30 p.m. and concludes at 12:30 a.m. at the Owensboro Convention Center. Standing room-only tickets for the event are still available.