Almost a year ago, a group of college students assembled, determined to make miracles happen. They worked through vacations. They worked while handling full course loads, jobs, and extracurricular activities. They worked long hours. They lost a lot of sleep. They skipped a lot of parties. Not a single one received a paycheck for the effort. Not a single one complained. Each member of the team brought a particular reason for doing it, but all their particular motivations can be summed up in three words: for the kids.
February 27, their work paid off. Fifteen of the group’s leaders stood on stage in front of more than 1,000 students who had danced for fourteen hours in the organization’s 18th annual Main Event. There is something particularly powerful about absolute silence in a crowd that large. That silence ended as the leaders lifted numbered cards to reveal how much had been raised: a new USC record, $527,810. For the second consecutive year, the crowd exploded at the news that more than half a million dollars would go to help the kids at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital.
Dance Marathon is the largest student-run philanthropy at the University of South Carolina, and its name leads some to believe it is just a single event. In fact, the fourteen-hour dance is just the culmination of a year of work to raise money for Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital. Within weeks of each year’s Main Event, a leadership team for the next year is selected by the students, and they go immediately to work.
Dance Marathon Executive Director Abby Scott, a USC senior, knew she had a hard act to follow when she applied for and was chosen for the job. In 2014-15, as public relations director, she was a big part of the team as the $500,000 barrier was shattered, surpassing the previous USC record total by more than $180,000. She and this year’s leadership team chose to focus less on numbers and more on why they do what they do.
Abby was the first to take the stage at the Main Event, and opened with that focus. The room filled with dancers was seated, for the last time that day, as she started. She asked them to stand in groups: those who had been in a children’s hospital as a patient, those who had had a family member as a patient. She finished by saying “Lastly, stand if you believe in miracles.” With that, everyone was standing, and she told them “All of you standing here today are already heroes.”
Recruitment Director Jamie Irick, another senior, followed Abby to the stage. The letters “FTK” were shaved into the side of his hair, and his message was one of love, for the kids and for the students who had come to help them. “I want each and every one of y’all to know that’s what you’re doing today: you’re taking a stand and living a life that matters,” he said. “I want you to know that I care about each and every one of you.”
Representatives from the hospital came next to thank the heroes. Palmetto Health Foundation President Samuel Tenenbaum, well known to the Dance Marathon team as “Mr. T,” said “You’re the most beautiful and fabulous people in the world today for what you’re doing.” He said it would have an impact on the students’ own lives as well as those of the kids. “You never forget that you’ve done the right thing.”
Dr. Caughman Taylor, the senior medical director at the children’s hospital, added his gratitude. “Thank you for making a difference. Thank you for inspiring us. And thank you for letting us take care of children.”
As Dr. Taylor left the stage, the dancing began. The Dance Marathon Morale Team made its entrance and demonstrated the complex line dance which all the participants would learn over the ensuing hours. Containing snippets of songs from Taylor Swift, the Beastie Boys, and many more, the dance is designed to keep the crowd’s energy going through the long day.
For those in the room at Main Event, the other motivation to keep going no matter how sore their feet and backs get is, of course, the cause. Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital patients are known as Miracle Kids by hospital staff and the Dance Marathon team alike, and many came to share their stories.
Todd and Carrie Schelling came with their two Miracle Kids. David and Kate have both survived life-threatening illnesses with the help of the children’s hospital. David had been shy in years past, but at 11 took the microphone and had the crowd laughing with his account of just how often he had been to the hospital for illnesses and childhood accidents. Todd, turning serious, said “Every time we wind up in the hospital I think of dance marathon and the energy and support you bring.”
Keldon Hemingway is a Dance Marathon icon. Diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor at 6, the 13-year-old has beaten the odds. He served as a national ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals in 2014 and rarely misses a USC event. He reminded the crowd that their efforts can change lives, even though every life cannot be saved. “I’ve lost 7 friends, I mean dead, to this little thing called disease. It sucks.” He shared how much the efforts of the college students do to let the kids fighting for their lives know they are not fighting alone.
Lila Mozingo, at 4, is an incredibly happy child. Her smile lights up a room, and she is not only willing but eager to take the stage in front of more than 1,000 people. She survived her first emergency surgery at just four days old, then three more surgeries, and spent the first 55 days of her life at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital. Her mother, Padgett, made it clear that Lila would not be alive without the hospital team, and that her family owes a great deal to the support of the Dance Marathon team. “The circle of life is very real,” she said. “What I needed now existed only because of students like you doing what you’re doing.”
The dancers stood and listened to each family. They stood while eating, as the leadership team’s unsung heroes had arranged for the meals through community sponsors. They shared their reasons for standing and dancing on a “Why Wall” poster for all to read. The wall brought tears to the eyes of many who read it. “Because I just found out I have MS and I can’t even imagine going through this as a kid. No kid should go through this alone.” “Because Cole, my 11-year-old cousin, passed away because of cancer.” “For sleepovers and staying up all night with friends.” “For more smiles.” “For more birthdays.” “For first dates, smiles, first days, first loves.” “Because our future depends on those who come after us.” “Because we know they’ll move mountains.” “Because every kid deserves to dance.” “For love.”
The energy even toward the end of a fourteen-hour event was almost tangible. No one seemed to want it to end. I’ve never seen so many heroes having so much fun,” said Hero Relations Director Maggie Wilson. “I love how we pushed our why this year, and here it is.”
When the reveal came, the numbers were astounding. $527,810 surpassed the previous USC fundraising record of $501,528, set last year. More than $120,000 was raised during the Main Event, with the dancers asking for donations from friends, from family, and even from strangers. Every dancer raised at least $119, one dollar for each bed at the children’s hospital.
A miracle, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a very amazing or unusual event, thing, or achievement.” College students devoting their lives to a cause for no reward other than knowing they have made a difference, then raising more than $500,000 for that cause, certainly qualifies.
Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist, said we should “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” February 27, for the 18th year, a group of USC students proved her right. They will soon be back at work to do it again in 2017.