HELPING HANDS — Summer 2008
   

 
Tavares Allen, Arts & Sciences Class of ’09, dances with the Village People team during the St. Louis Area Dance Marathon on Saturday, November 3, 2007, in the Athletic Complex. The student-organized fundraiser benefited the Children’s Miracle Network.
‘Gettin’ Down’ to Lift Children Up

By Betsy Rogers

For one dazzling night each fall, dancers move in step at the Athletic Complex. It may not be Marie Osmond or Jason Taylor of “Dancing with the Stars.” But it’s University students Greg Perlstein and Lauren Statman and hundreds of others dancing for Dance Marathon. In its ninth season at Washington University, the 12-hour dance-a-thon eliminates no one but lifts the hopes and dreams of children by raising donations for the Children’s Miracle Network.

“It feels like magic,” says Lauren Statman, 2008 executive director and Arts & Sciences Class of ’09. And the word “magic” often comes up in conversations with students and staff alike when discussing Dance Marathon (DM). Captivating definitely applies both to the event’s own supercharged excitement and to its fundraising success.

Of course, DM’s success results not from magic but from hard work, high-level organization, and the students’ creativity.

In the past two years, the St. Louis Area Dance Marathon, organized and staged by Washington University students, has achieved dramatic growth in the funds it raises for the Children’s Miracle Network (www.cmn-stl.org/). In 2005, this spirited extravaganza raised just over $71,000. In 2006, the total was $123,000. Last November 3, the 800-plus dancers tallied an astonishing $176,342.

“We set high goals, but we never expected to surpass them by so much,” says Greg Perlstein, Dance Marathon’s 2007 executive director and Arts & Sciences Class of ’08.

Stephanie Kurtzman, director of the University’s Community Service Office and associate director of the Gephardt Institute for Public Service, acknowledges that staff advisors expected Dance Marathon over the years to level off at the $50,000 to $60,000 range. “The growth in the last two years has been monumental,” she says.

And students drive this growth, says Julie Breckenkamp, Children’s Miracle Network development associate and Washington University liaison. “They don’t miss a beat,” she says. “They are the most amazing, intelligent, and well-organized group of students.”

For the 2008 Dance Marathon, a 28-student board began working in January. The effort will continue through summer vacation, as well as long-distance, in Chile, Spain, Italy, England, and Scotland, for those members who study abroad.

Board members take on specific functions, such as finance, logistics, involvement, or communications. For the first time, the 2008 board includes a Fontbonne University student, reflecting an ongoing commitment to extend DM’s reach to other area college campuses and to high schools.

The close-knit board is like family, says Statman. At the same time, its professionalism is striking. “Every year, the students think more strategically about corporate underwriting and about keeping the campus connected to the mission,” Kurtzman says.

“We stand in support of miracle children and dance for those who can’t right now.”

Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) raises money nationally for children’s hospitals. But local organizations shape their own CMN marathons. “Always imaginative, our students invent much of the event’s design and traditions,” Kurtzman says.

As an example, the 2007 board worked closely with Risa Zwerling Wrighton (Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton’s wife), the event’s honorary chair, to increase faculty and staff participation. The chancellor donated $9 for each of the 50+ plus faculty and staff members who attended.

“Students taught us the electric slide, and then we marched into the gym,” Kurtzman continues. “Hundreds parted the waters, so to speak, and 50 of us went right up on stage, and Risa and Jim McLeod led us in the dance. It was incredibly creative.”

Another example: To expedite check-in for 800-plus dancers, organizers designed an online system whereby participants could print out bar-coded tickets, much like an airline boarding pass, to be scanned upon arrival. “I never saw a line, not once,” says Sarah Tillery, staff coordinator for community service and DM advisor.

In St. Louis, CMN divides its support equally between Children’s and Cardinal Glennon hospitals. At Children’s, DM proceeds have helped finance reconstruction of the pediatric and neonatal intensive care units. At Cardinal Glennon, they support the Bob Costas Cancer Center, where children receive nonresidential treatment.

Every dime dancers raise goes to the hospitals. Indeed, that’s one reason that DM is a yearlong effort. Board members work from January on to raise money to cover operating costs. Staging the event—from sound, lighting, and video equipment, to renting tables and chairs—costs roughly $20,000. This year the board won grants from the Build-A-Bear Workshop® Bear Hugs Foundation and Sigma Corporation to augment fundraising and Student Union support.

They also work tirelessly to raise the Dance Marathon profile. During 2007 Orientation week, DM organizers helped freshmen move into their dorms. They staffed a South 40 information booth. They organized “Step out for S’mores” outside a big Orientation dance. In early September, they were in Bowles Plaza, giving away T-shirts and registering participants. During Parents Weekend, they returned to Bowles, dancing their hearts out and serving free pizza.

Dance Marathon, then, is a series of events, designed to recruit dancers, raise funds, and promote both DM and CMN. Even the marathon itself is many events in one. There are performances, competitions, and food. A Family Tent provides games, giant inflatables, arts and crafts for CMN’s “miracle children”—those who have healed from their illnesses—and their families. There’s an auction and a raffle.

And then, of course, there’s dancing.

Planners choose a theme for each of DM’s 12 hours. The music reflects the theme—country, for instance, or Disney or hip-hop. Many dancers change costumes each hour. “Some actually change clothes 12 times,” Statman says.

And speaking to being on your feet for virtually 12 hours, Statman says, “We stand in support of miracle children and dance for those who can’t right now.”

Dance Marathon culminates in an inspirational 1:30 a.m. closing ceremony. The ceremony recognizes top fundraisers and announces total earnings. Someone from a “miracle family” speaks. Last year, the speakers were the parents of Ella Prickett, CMN’s 2005 Ambassador Child who, tragically, relapsed and died in 2006.

“Ella was one of those amazing kids who lit up the whole gym,” Perlstein recalls. “Her parents talked about her and about everything we had done for CMN. They emphasized the ability we have to make an impact, not just through Dance Marathon but for the rest of our lives.”

Betsy Rogers is a freelance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.