By Elizabeth Putfark
Springtime in Gainesville is marked by many things – budding blooms, heavy rains and at the University of Florida, the opportunity for students to dance, dance, dance!
The annual Dance Marathon put on by Dance Marathon of UF is part of a national effort to raise money and awareness for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals around the country in a fun, festive and heart-pounding way. In the past 21 years, Dance Marathon at UF has raised over $10 million for our local Miracle Network hospital, the UF Shands Children’s Hospital, making it the most successful student-run philanthropy in the Southeast.
Although the event maxes out at 825 dancers, over 6,000 students register to raise funds throughout the season.
Most of the student dancers are sent as delegates by larger organizations within the university, and being selected is both a privilege and a challenge.
“This is a 26.2 hour event that requires students to be on their feet for the duration – no sleeping, sitting or caffeine!” explains Melissa Dukes, Public Relations Director for Dance Marathon at UF. “We have a ‘Morale Team’ that plans all year for ways to keep the dancers going, with different themes every hour and activities for them to do.”
Also every hour there’s a pause on the jukebox for one of the Miracle Network Families to tell their story. “They talk about their child’s illness and their experience at the hospital,” Dukes describes. “It’s a great reminder of how what we’re doing really impacts children.”
Closing ceremonies follow a final countdown to the culminating “sit,” when exhausted college students are allowed to collapse on the floor and listen to one last miracle story. This year, the final family to present shared their experiences with daughter Izabella, who was born a twin three months premature at Memorial West Hospital in South Florida. Izabella suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage at three weeks old, after which she was diagnosed with a rare unnamed disease that would require a lung transplant – one so difficult to come by that her doctors never thought she would make it. Nine months later, Izabella was transferred to Shands where she received that transplant, and two months later she was discharged from the hospital for the first time.
“Many kids were told that they wouldn’t make it,” says Dukes, “and then they were able to come to UF Shands. The parents always talk about this ray of hope they felt when they came to the hospital because the doctors were so positive and believed they might be able to help.”
All of the funds raised by Dance Marathon of UF go directly to UF Shands Children Hospital. Fifty percent of proceeds go toward research and the other 50 percent to the facilities and equipment that help young patients feel as comfortable as possible.
The Dance Marathon organization is about more than just the big dance. Throughout the year, they hold a series of events all aimed at raising funds and awareness for their cause. They host a FT5K, a team bowling event at Alley Gatorz Bowling Alley, a family fun filled FTKarnival, a Kickball Tournament and new this year, a community Food Truck Rally.
Still, the group’s main event and namesake continues to garner unparalleled support and participation each year, yielding inspiring results.
“I think what’s really special about Dance Marathon at UF is that it’s all these students coming together from different backgrounds, and seeing all those walls are broken down as everyone comes together for one cause,” claims Dukes, who fell in love with DM as a sophomore and has continued working her way further into the organization ever since. “We’ve gained so much support from the students, the university and the community in helping these kids who are right here in Gainesville and who need it the most.”
Dukes stresses that although only students get to dance, this event and the Dance Marathon organization rely on community support – support she hopes to see increase in the coming years. “There are so many great ways for the community to get involved – the easiest is just to come out to one of our events!” Dukes suggests. “Even more than that, we’d like to keep building a long term relationship with the community.
“We’d love for local families and businesses to be a part of our organization in any way they can, whether they do that by coming to an event, sponsoring one or just spreading the word about us. We’d love to hear from them!”
For more information on Dance Marathon and upcoming events, visit floridadm.org.