Dance Marathon leaders posing at the UofSCDM Playground at Prisma Health Children's Hospital

UofSC Dance Marathon rises to pandemic challenges

The University of South Carolina’s largest student-run philanthropy, Dance Marathon, will host its Main Event this Saturday, Feb. 27, just as it has every year since 1999. As with so many things in 2020-21, however, this year's event will look a little different.

The event, which concludes a year-long fundraising effort to support the Child Life program at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital, has traditionally happened in the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center, with students packed into a gym for a day of dancing. Dance Marathon drew more than 2,000 student participants each of the last three years, raising more than $1 million for the kids each time.

That approach cannot work in 2021 with pandemic safety restrictions, but the cause remains, and the need for funds is more urgent than ever. Therefore, student leaders went into action beginning last summer, spending nine months working to find a way.

“We realized COVID isn't going away in time, but the kids are going to need us now more than ever,” says Caroline Selinger, an early childhood education major who is serving as vice president of productions for Dance Marathon this year. “We started looking at how we could deliver a safe but still fun event."

The Dance Marathon team consulted with university President Bob Caslen and his pandemic leadership team, then with Russell House and campus recreation staff as plans began to take shape, finding eager support at every step.

“They've been great to work with and so willing to help us,” Selinger says.

Saturday’s 2021 Main Event will happen at Russell House and at Blatt Field, with participants split between the two locations and coming and going in shifts. The change from everyone dancing all day is a big one, but necessary to ensure safety. The students who have raised the most money this year leading up to Main Event were given first choice of shifts. 

I have the option to walk away, but those kids don't, so I would never.

— Caroline Selinger, vice president of productions for Dance Marathon


Selinger and her team, all students, have also spent time carefully planning where students will be, arranging social distancing and masks, and successfully finding partners to donate items like hand sanitizer.

A tremendous amount of hours have gone into the planning, and every student involved is an unpaid volunteer. They keep going because they know the importance of the cause. Prisma Health’s Child Life department works to make the hospital experience less scary and unpleasant for kids, to make it easier for them and their families to go through times which are incredibly difficult. 

COVID-19 has only made those times more difficult, with children struggling to understand why people are wearing masks and why they can’t have visitors. The Child Life specialists can be there to keep them company and to explain. Many similar departments laid off staff over the past year, but Prisma Health Children’s Hospital did not, despite not billing families for the services. The difference for the Columbia hospital was the funding provided by Dance Marathon.

“With a decrease in surgeries and other procedures that hospitals rely on for revenue, we have tearfully watched as many of our peer child life programs across our state and the nation have had to cut their child life hours and programming due to lack of funding,” Prisma Health Children’s Hospital Child Life Director Christy Fink wrote to the Dance Marathon team. “In the middle of a pandemic when hospitals have been forced to limit or exclude parents at the bedside, child life services have been reduced. Because of you, we have not had to face the unimaginable hardship of reducing team members and services.”

That letter has kept many of the students even more motivated than ever, as have personal ties to childhood illnesses.

“I have a very sweet little 3-year-old friend, Louise, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2019,” Selinger, who hopes to become a Child Life specialist, says. “There have been times I've wanted to stop because the work has gotten too hard, but Louise can't stop. She has to keep fighting, as do all these kids. I have the option to walk away, but those kids don't, so I would never."

For the kids, alumni, and all the others who can’t be there in person Saturday, Main Event will be streamed live online, starting at 10 a.m. and concluding with the reveal of this year’s fundraising total at 10 p.m.

As always, all money raised by University of South Carolina Dance Marathon stays local, providing support for the kids. Selinger says that support has never mattered more.

"Every single dollar counts. In a year where that's all people can give, it makes such a big difference."


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