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In step with the dance marathon

The National Sleep Foundation reports that sleeping less than six hours a night can lead to physical exhaustion, memory shortcomings and weight gain. What they don’t mention is that when mixed with disco moves, it can save lives.

The National Sleep Foundation reports that sleeping less than six hours a night can lead to physical exhaustion, memory shortcomings and weight gain. What they don’t mention is that when mixed with disco moves, it can save lives.

For one day a year hundreds of students forego slumber and pile into the Ramsey Center gym for the UGA Dance Marathon, a nonstop 24-hour fundraiser. The proceeds go to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, a nonprofit hospital specializing in pediatrics.

The substance-free, family-safe event isn’t the average Bacchanalian college party. It features live music and games, but parses it with responsibilities such as looking after the “miracle children,” Children’s Healthcare patients who come to Athens for the marathon.

“It’s tiring, I’m not going to lie,” says freshman Emily Evert. “But the kids get tired too, and a lot of them are 6 or 7 years old, so there’s no way they can make it 24 hours. It’s amazing how much energy they have.”

Evert, like many students, signed up to be a part of the Dance Marathon before she had taken her first midterm. She joined the special events committee and coordinated fundraising efforts including a tour of sorority houses and discount shopping days at Athens-area businesses that put profits toward the hospital.

“I started pretty much right after I got here, but I’ve been involved (with the hospital) before,” she says. “My sister was in the hospital when I was little, so I spent a lot of time there with her. They did a lot for her.”

Using tools like a letter-writing campaign to solicit donations from her friends, parents and parents’ friends, Evert shored up more than $1,000 for the program, becoming UGA’s No. 4 fundraiser. The children, she says, make the difference.

“I love the cause. I may not do the special events committee next year, though. I think I want to do something that’s closer to the kids. Each group goes to the hospital to visit the kids at least once ... but I want to go more,” she says.

The group proudly promotes its title as the largest student-run philanthropy operation in the Southeast, making no excuses for its ticket prices, which run students $175 in donations. The miracle children and their families stay free of charge in condominiums in downtown Athens that are secured by dance marathon students.

Other Georgia colleges also host Dance Marathons for the hospital, but this year, as usual, the UGA group topped the fundraising list, pumping $249,887.33 into the Children’s Hospital budget. UGA’s portion was the lion’s share from colleges across the state; since the program began 11 years ago, UGA has raised more than $1.5 million.

“The money really does help kids. You don’t realize that. You don’t see the far-reaching effects,” says Barbara Buckley, mother of 16-year-old Taryn Buckley, who has benefited from the group’s fundraising efforts.

Three years ago Taryn suffered severe brain damage when she somersaulted off a horse, breaking the fall with her head and spine. She was life-flighted to the hospital on a helicopter bought with proceeds from the dance marathon.

After spending two weeks in a coma, Taryn woke up without the ability to perform the basic functions of life such as swallowing, speaking or walking.

“We didn’t leave the hospital. We couldn’t. My husband and I took turns keeping a vigil while the other one slept,” her mother says. “Why this happened, I don’t know, but the long and short of it is that I have a hard time saying it was the worst that ever happened to us because it really taught us about people’s compassion and the generosity of people that you don’t get to see on a day-to-day basis of living your life.”

Now, thanks to weeks of therapy and emergency surgery that night, Taryn is enrolled in four accelerated classes in high school and pushing her parents to let her drive.

“We were very blessed by the hospital,” her mother says. “She’s become good friends with the kids at UGA. They’re really sweet. These kids don’t have children. They don’t have a point of reference for children. They’re living their 20-year old lives, but they’re living beyond that.”

Taryn, like many of the miracle children, shared her story at the function in between entertainment sets that included a magician and stand-up comic and costume-themed dances. Their presence was a poignant reminder when the UGA students got tired or weary of the activities.

“All of it, essentially, is UGA students saying we can sacrifice 24 hours to help out children who have to sacrifice much more than that,” says Dance Marathon 2006 Executive Director Matt Garrett. “We measure success in money, but the real success is in lives.”

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photos by Nancy Evelyn

Click on image to enlarge

Jackie Simonis, Autumn Seagle and Jaya Srivastava celebrate after successfully attempting another round of dance lessons.

UGA student Matt Garrett, executive director of the Dance Marathon, was in charge of 1000-plus volunteers and more than 300 committee members.

Jesse Oakley enjoying the slide, part of the pool activities that took place during the marathon.

Taryn Buckley tells how the Children's Miracle Network helped her after a severe horseback riding accident.

Clockwise from right, UGA student Laura Vann, Sarah Gwaltney, Seth Adams, UGA student Laura Fylstra and Dawson Coward play on an inflatable obstacle course.

UGA freshman Emily Evert shops at Fortson’s Clothiers in downtown Athens; participating stores offered discounts to fundraisers, with proceeds going to the Dance Marathon.

Lauren Stone performs as a “Snowflake” for the Day Rehabilitation Clinic of Children’s Hospital.