In seven days, miracles will happen in Columbia, and lives will be forever changed for the better. More than 2,000 students, joined by the kids who are the reason for it all, will stand and dance for 14 hours at the 20th annual University of South Carolina Dance Marathon Main Event. Their goal is to raise $1,000,000 for Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital. Their leadership team has worked tirelessly for a year leading up to the moment when the total will be revealed at midnight. Why does it mean so much? Midlands Anchor will share a series of stories with you as the countdown continues in hopes of explaining, and of encouraging you to help the cause by donating. For love, for hope, and always for the kids.
For the next six days, we will bring you the stories of students, of the heroes who give so much of themselves to help the kids at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, to bring more joy and hope and love into the lives of these children who have suffered and struggled so much, to let them know that they will never, never fight alone.
Today is my story. It’s a personal story, and one I’ve hesitated to write. I do not want for a moment to make this about me. I write this because I am not a college student. I am generations removed from the Dance Marathon team, as many of you reading this may be. I spent most of my career as a journalist, and I entered that field because I wanted to help people by telling stories that needed to be told.
I have seen at close range countless great causes and great organizations. I love them all, and make every effort to be there when they need my help. Still, none have touched my heart and changed my life the way USC Dance Marathon has. I want to tell you in hopes that one of you might be touched and changed the same way (by them, not by me), or at least motivated to donate to Dance Marathon. Every dollar counts, and everything is for the kids.
The journey began for me in 2014. I was a journalist looking for a story and heard about Main Event through a release from USC. I pictured a marathon like the one on Gilmore Girls, featuring couples competing to see who could keep dancing for the longest time. It was for a good cause, the release said, and it was a slow news weekend, so off I went. I had no idea what was coming.
I arrived in time to see Clay Dixon, then 11, step on stage in front of hundreds of college students and share his story. Diagnosed at 6 with an inoperable brain tumor, he had every reason to be bitter. Instead, he said “I want to thank all of y’all. Everything you do is for kids like me and Keldon [Hemingway] and what you do is amazing. Thank you very much.” It was my first exposure to the Miracle Kids, and my first hint of just how amazing they are.
I met Taylor Dietrich that day too. She was a USC senior and executive director of DM that year (an organization run entirely by students, by the way). Taylor’s story could fill a book, but for now suffice it to say five minutes with her is enough to see her passion for helping kids, and to be caught up by it.
“We’re all students, working for and thinking about our futures,” she told me that night. “And we dedicate ourselves, day in and day out, to help others achieve their futures.”
Taylor. Clay. The almost indescribable energy in that room. The passion of college students, every single one a volunteer. The awe-inspiring courage of the Miracle Kids. Any journalist worth the cost of an AP Stylebook could see this was a story worth telling. I was hooked.
In 2015, I was determined to help the cause any way I could. Being a journalist and therefore poor, I set out to use the power I did have, pitching story after story, quite likely annoying my bosses and coworkers, but managing to get approval to write a series of preview stories and to attend all of Main Event and write a chronological account of the day and night.
That year gave me the chance to get to know some of the people who made it all happen, and I quickly learned that there is a good reason Dance Marathon stands out: the students involved are some of the most incredible human beings I’ve ever encountered.
The preview stories gave me a chance to hear and share a few of their stories. Leslie Knight, Caitlin Deltgen, Jamie Irick, Stephanie Tellus (Urbanski then). Each was different from the rest, a common theme, as I’d learn. Dance Marathon brings together people of different backgrounds, races, genders, orientations, political leanings and interests, creating a potpourri of heroes bound together by their love for the kids.
My life changed again because of DM on March 14 that year. I spent the day covering St. Pat’s in Five Points, then went in the evening to Cardinal Newman High School, whose students were hosting their own Dance Marathon that night.
On that night, perhaps the biggest party night of the year in Columbia, I arrived at Cardinal Newman to find one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen: Leslie and more than a dozen other USC students had skipped all the St. Pat’s festivities to stand with those high school students.
“I chose to be here, not because I have to, but because it’s what I want to do,” Leslie told me that night, in many ways summing up in one sentence the philosophy of every DM member, past, present and future.
That year’s Main Event was the clincher for me. The DM team shattered the record set the previous year, hitting $501,528 for the kids.
I hope I never forget the first time I cried publicly at Main Event. It was early that day and I stood beside Kate Oldham as Miracle Kid Benjamin Brown, then only 8, took the stage. Another incredibly brave child, forced to overcome more in his short life than most do in a full lifetime.
Benjamin was adorable and had the crowd cheering, but the tears came for me and many others when he paused and reached into his pocket, producing a crumpled $20 bill, and telling us all that he had saved his allowance so he could donate it to help other kids.
I was far from the only one to recognize just how extraordinary this day was. USC President Harris Pastides took the stage before the total was revealed and offered to write letters of recommendation for jobs or graduate school for every single student in the room.
“You come tell me you were in Dance Marathon, and I’ll have that letter for you,” he said. The president of one of the nation’s best universities was there, not long before midnight on a Saturday, and his offer was sincere. Many have taken him up on it since, and the answer has always been yes.
The moment of the reveal followed. I have been a sports fan all my life, and was a sports reporter for years, and I love sports because of the moments that produce chills. I learned that night that a fundraiser run by college students could match the greatest feelings the Braves and Jordan and the U.S. hockey team ever gave me.
I went home that night, and sat down at my desk at around 2 a.m. I had a story to write, and the words flowed more easily than they ever have for me. I don’t remember pausing to look at a clock. I do remember finishing, around 6 a.m., and laughing when I saw that I had more than 10,000 words. A typical news story is less than 1,000, so I knew cuts had to be made.
Brindy McNair, my boss then, and one of the best bosses I’ve ever had, read my edited version, still 4,000 words. She told me it was still too long, but also told me she wished we could run it all, and allowed me to decide how to shorten it, and let me have much more leeway than most editors would have. Still, as I cut it to 1,700 words, I knew the rest of the story had to be told, and an idea was born.
I started work that day on a book on USC Dance Marathon. Where is it, you ask? It remains unfinished for two reasons. First, USCDM keeps doing more and more incredible things, faster than I can keep up. New records set again in 2016 and 2017. More amazing stories and amazing people. A mini-marathon program at local high schools growing by leaps and bounds. A goal of $1,000,000 for this year, the 20th anniversary of USCDM.
The book will be published later this year, with the 20th anniversary serving as a fitting end, and with eyes already on a second volume for the future. Every penny of the proceeds from its sales will go to DM. Again, this is not to make it about me, anything but. I can’t do what these students do. I can’t give large amounts of money. I will work harder than I’ve ever worked at anything to do their story justice, for them, for the way they’ve changed my life and most of all for the kids.
These fantastic people have also made an old reporter feel like family. We share a bond that does not fade, because we all share a passion, a passion they created in me. I can’t count the kind things the students past and present, the Miracle Kids and their families, and the Palmetto Health staff have done for me.
I don’t have a lot of possessions that really mean a lot to me on an emotional level. Most are just things. Most of the exceptions to that rule came from DM. A canvas signed by Miracle Kids, presented to me by Caitlin on behalf of the 2015 team. A sympathy card sent by the 2017 team when my mother died. A birthday card signed by many of my DM friends. A T-shirt from the 2017 event, given to me by Kaity Lynch along with a pin made by Lindsey Zybrick. My status as an “honorary alumnus,” conferred by Jo Jo Winkelmann. An incredibly kind note from Caitlin’s father. A photo of Lila Mozingo walking along the front of the Main Event stage like the rock star she is. Photos of me with some of those I’ve been closest to. These are things I treasure, because of the reminder they bring of how this organization has changed my life for the better.
I’m about to wrap up this very long story (my role at Midlands Anchor allows me to be long-winded on occasion) and go to the Ben Lippen mini-marathon. I’ll see old friends there. I’ll meet new ones. First, I have just one more thing to say. It’s not an easy thing. I don’t typically share personal things in public, especially of this sort.
This is for all those, past and present, who have been part of DM. Miracle Kids, families, heroes, leaders, hospital staff, Palmetto Health Foundation staff. I love you all. Every single one of you. You make the world better every day, for the kids and for so many more, some whose lives you never even know you touch. Thank you for all you do for love, for hope, and always for the kids.