‘From a Fundraiser to an Absolute Mission’--Student-run Dance Marathon helps mold future philanthropists

They’re quite inspiring, the students who join University of Iowa Dance Marathon.

They deliver one-on-one attention and fun activities every week to oncology patients at UI Children’s Hospital (allowing the kids’ families a much-needed break). They organize group excursions to amusement parks and museums to help divert focus from the momentous challenges the children are facing. They immerse themselves in ongoing fundraising and awareness building.

And each winter their efforts culminate in “the Big Event,” a 24-hour dance marathon in the Iowa Memorial Union, where they celebrate young cancer survivors as well as patients fighting for their lives, remember those who have passed, and find out how much money was raised in the previous year (a total that has topped $1 million in each of the past four years). In 2010, the student-run organization gave $1 million to the Children’s Hospital to support research into pediatric cancer and blood disorders, and in 2011 it pledged $5 million over the next 10 years toward a new Children’s Hospital building.

There is a lot of giving on the part of the 2,000-plus student participants, including time, money, and effort, but there also is plenty of “getting,” the students insist.

“Dance Marathon taught me the importance of putting others before yourself. I learned about stewardship and how helping others can be very self-fulfilling. It also defined who I am as a leader.”
—UI alumnus Brian Martin

For Elyse Meardon (B.S. ’09), executive director of the 2012 Dance Marathon, the experience has instilled the confidence she needed to pursue a medical degree. She currently is taking graduate-level courses at Iowa and plans to take the Medical College Admission Test in the spring.

“Dance Marathon helps students develop a professional skill set — and that’s something you don’t necessarily get in the classroom. I now have experience in interviewing, development and fundraising, and peer management,” says Meardon, who majored in radiation sciences. “It’s forced me to push the limits of what I think I can do, and has given me confidence and humility.”

Michael Kinney, a senior majoring in marketing and management who plans to work in public relations, says he has gained invaluable field experience as Dance Marathon’s 2012 marketing director. And while the position has improved his time management and communication skills, he says it also has imparted important life lessons.

“As college students we get so caught up over a grade or socializing with friends, and while those things are important, Dance Marathon has taught me to step back, relax, and realize that I’m living ‘the good life,’” he says. “There’s always going to be something to work on or something that needs to be done. Every once in a while you have to put those things on hold and spend some time goofing around with your friends and family. If you don’t take moments for yourself, you’re going to burn out and start dreading what you once loved.”

So profound was the experience of participating in Dance Marathon and volunteering at UI Children’s Hospital that Brian Martin (B.S.N. ’09) switched his major to nursing and now is a hematology/oncology nurse at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He also is involved in the Chicago Dance Marathon.

“Dance Marathon taught me the importance of putting others before yourself,” says Martin, who returns to the UI campus each winter to be a part of the Big Event. “I learned about stewardship and how helping others can be very self fulfilling. It also defined who I am as a leader.”

How it works

Courtney Bond (B.A. ’07) is the coordinator for Dance Marathon in the UI Division of Student Life’s Center for Student Involvement and Leadership. Contrary to popular thought, she says, Dance Marathon is a year-round operation. Almost immediately after the close of the Big Event, a new leadership team is selected and plans get under way for the following year.

“One of the biggest misunderstandings about Dance Marathon is that it’s a one-day event,” she explains, “but right away after each event we’re in recruitment mode, getting students excited to sign on for the next year.”

A major goal each year is to increase the number of students who sign up — and to retain them through the Big Event. So far this year, Dance Marathon has recruited 2,400 students. Although business and health care are heavily represented among the participants’ majors, Bond says students of all backgrounds get involved — and for many reasons. For some, it serves as a résumé builder, while others just want to help a stranger. Bond joined the effort her first year in college when her grandfather was diagnosed with cancer.

“I wanted to show him my support. I couldn’t help him, but I could help these kids,” she says, noting that 600 patient families are represented through Dance Marathon.

Ten students are appointed to the organization’s executive council, and dozens more serve as morale captions who work to keep the dancers motivated throughout the year and at the Big Event. More than 200 students are on various committees that help Dance Marathon run: they organize fundraising efforts, secure corporate sponsorships, direct family activities, volunteer at the hospital, and more. For many involved, Bond says, the commitment is akin to a full-time job.

“These students essentially are running a million-dollar business, and the level of responsibility they take on is impressive. They plan and execute strategies. They learn email etiquette and how to deal with confrontation. On top of this, they are full-time students. They learn quickly how to handle stress, and by the end they have become a well-oiled machine,” she says. “On the other side, they learn empathy, compassion, and patience as they help families dealing with cancer.”

How it started

Dance Marathon is a nationwide philanthropy effort involving college, high school, and elementary students from more than 170 schools raising money through Children’s Miracle Network. The UI Dance Marathon, which was first organized in 1994, has grown into the largest student-led philanthropy west of the Mississippi River, says Bond.

Sheila Baldwin (B.B.A. ’98), assistant vice president for health sciences development at the UI Foundation, is the lead fundraiser for the UI Children’s Hospital and the foundation’s primary liaison to Dance Marathon. She also is one of the founding members of the UI effort, having helped spearhead as an undergraduate the 36-hour inaugural event held in 1995 (the Big Event now lasts 24 hours).

“It is almost unbelievable to me that this is the same organization we started,” she says. “We certainly didn’t set out to raise $1 million — we just wondered if people would stay the entire 36 hours. Many did stay, and we ended up raising $31,000.”

That total has increased every subsequent year since, with a grand total topping $9.8 million. Baldwin is pleased that many aspects from the early events have become traditions — such as holding up tote boards at the end of the marathon (known as “the reveal”) to show how much money was raised that year and then uniting to form one large circle of dancers. She also can pinpoint the moment she realized how special that first Dance Marathon was.

“We’d invited the patients and their families to attend the Big Event, but then they came onstage and told us their stories. That put faces on what we were doing, and really solidified the emotional tie,” she says. “At that moment, Dance Marathon turned from a fundraiser to an absolute mission to make their lives better.”

How it’s paying off

That mission has manifested into major strides in raising funds for pediatric oncology treatment and care at the University of Iowa. Dance Marathon first broke the million-dollar mark in 2008, which was followed in 2010 and 2011 by the two major gift commitments to UI Children’s Hospital.

Meardon says those pledges illustrate just how dedicated the students are to improving the lives of current and future patients.

“By providing a better hospital, we’ll be able to provide a better culture and better continuity of care,” she says. “And by funding research, we’ll help attract better physicians and researchers, which will improve care. It’s a forward vision.”

The $285 million, 11-story facility will consolidate children’s health care services that now are spread throughout the university hospital complex. Groundbreaking is scheduled for fall 2012, with completion slated for 2015.

Baldwin says the efforts of the students and their commitment to UI Children’s Hospital are inspiring, and that the UI Foundation is pleased to support them.

“Dance Marathon is often a student’s first experience in philanthropy, and we want to encourage that,” she says. “Professionally, on behalf of the Children’s Hospital, I am grateful. Professionally, on behalf of the UI Foundation, I am proud of the students and their philanthropy. Personally, I am absolutely awestruck.”

Philanthropy will be part of his life long after graduation, Kinney says.

“I have always wanted to start my own nonprofit organization, and my experience within Dance Marathon has strengthened that desire to a whole new level,” he says. “My ultimate career goal is to start my very own nonprofit philanthropic organization by the age of 45.”

UI Dance Marathon’s Big Event this year will be held Feb. 3-4; for more details (including a live feed), see dancemarathon.uiowa.edu. Also, find information about the UI Dance Marathon Alumni Group at www.iowalum.com/dancemarathon.

Sara Epstein Moninger
photo by Tim Schoon

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© The University of Iowa 2009