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Dance marathons inspire connection off the dance floor, too

Spirit of volunteerism has spread across the state

Jun 17, 2019 at 3:09 pm
    Ella Mittelstadt, 6, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, gets a piggyback ride as she and her family are introduced to the applause and high-fives of University of Iowa dance marathoners during the family entrance at the 24-hour dance marathon Big Event of the University of Iowa Dance Marathon 24th annual fundraiser for pediatric cancer research at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

    Since May 12 of last year, Carie Wisor-McElroy has seen a lot of dark nights.

    But the darkness she experienced Feb. 2 also included flashes of magenta, fluorescent green and yellow, disco balls and lasers. And loud, loud music.

    “It’s wonderful,” Wisor-McElroy said that night, watching her energetic four-year-old emerge from a bouncy house in the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus.

    But by “wonderful,” the Marion mother wasn’t talking about the games or the floor-shaking dancing or the bursts of impromptu singing. She was referring to the reason for it all — the children themselves, young and old, and the relationships they’ve forged.

    “It’s not just fundraising,” Wisor-McElroy said. “The kids come in and volunteer to play with the kids in the hospital. That was the biggest impact.”

    Those volunteer “kids” she meant are University of Iowa college students involved in the campus’ Dance Marathon, which this year shattered another record by raising through one all-night dance party more than $3 million for pediatric cancer research.


    In its 24th year, the more than 2,700 students who participated in the 24-hour “big event” — which started Feb. 2 and extended through the next day — brought UI Dance Marathon’s fundraising total to more than $24.4 million.

    All the money — raised through sponsorships and donations both online and in person — supports faculty, research and pediatric oncology and bone marrow transplant patients and families treated at the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

    And excitement around the Dance Marathon mission has spread through the state — with other colleges catching on and mini dance marathons emerging in local schools, this year contributing $157,471 to the total. A Children’s Miracle Network Radiothon added another $80,532, and alumni contributed more than $120,000.

    Charity-style dance marathons exist on college and high school campuses nationwide, with more than 250 participating in some form. The UI “big event” is among the most successful — which is critical at a time when federal funding for research is slipping and state support for Iowa’s public universities is down.

    In January, UI senior Alex Linden — serving as executive director of UI Dance Marathon — announced the organization over the next two years will give $2 million toward establishing a UI Dance Marathon Chair in Pediatric Oncology, Clinical and Translational Research — the first student-funded chair in the university’s history.

    That faculty post will lead pediatric cancer research in the UI Stead Family Department of Pediatrics, which sits inside the new 14-story, $360 million Children’s Hospital, which Dance Marathon supported with a $5 million gift — earning it 11th floor naming recognition as the UI Dance Marathon Pediatric Cancer Center.


    ‘Absolutely terrifying’

    Two weeks after Wisor-McElroy’s four-year-old daughter Aria was diagnosed with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia on May 12, she gave birth to a son. She also had a two-year-old daughter at the time, and Aria spent most of her first 30 days with the cancer diagnosis in the hospital.

    “That was hard,” she said. “That first month was absolutely terrifying.”

    Wisor-McElroy knew something was wrong when her typically boisterous daughter became unusually and persistently lethargic and pale.

    “She started going to bed early and started taking naps in the middle of the day,” Wisor-McElroy said. “We would go to the store, and she would get halfway through Wal-Mart and say, ‘I’m too tired to walk.’”

    The day Aria was diagnosed, Wiser-McElroy took her to urgent care, where the clinic drew blood. The family returned home and — not expecting to hear back about results that day — plugged in their phones to charge.

    Because the clinic wasn’t able to reach the family, the staff sent a police officer to the home to ask them to call the doctor’s office immediately.

    “We went to urgent care at 9 a.m. and got the diagnosis that evening at 5:18 p.m.,” Wiser-McElroy said.

    Aria recently finished her “front-line” treatment, which involved chemotherapy and lots of interaction with Dance Marathon volunteers. Thus, during this year’s annual dance-a-thon, Aria saw plenty of friends and familiar faces, who she’ll continue to see as she’s starting a two-year course of maintenance treatment.

    “We still have a long road ahead of us,” Wiser-McElroy said.


    ‘That sealed it’

    Kiefer and Jordan Hopkins of Muscatine also know the UI Children’s Hospital well — both the old version and the new — as their 20-month-old son Parker was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in August 2016.

    The baby, whom they call “Bubby,” had gotten a mosquito bite on a trip to Minnesota that morphed into a large boil. He, as with Aria, eventually became lethargic and persistently tired.

    The family pushed for blood work after exhaustive efforts with antibiotics and steroids.

    Bubby earned the label “in remission” on Christmas Eve in 2016 — after six months of chemotherapy. But he relapsed almost exactly one year later in August 2017, and this time he’d need a bone-marrow transplant.

    Maddux — Bubby’s four-year-old brother — tested as a perfect match and went for surgery in October.

    Today, a now three-year-old Bubby is six months post-transplant and considered in remission.

    “They told us in five years this will be a memory,” Kiefer said.

    And woven throughout that memory will be dancers — not dancing, but sitting, squatting, laughing and surprising the family with just what they needed exactly when they needed it.

    “They made it a lot easier for us to get through everyday functions,” he recalled. “They would come in and take him to play and be so excited to see him. That would allow us to sneak away and get coffee or to grab lunch or to even get in the shower.”

    Every week they’d drop off gift cards to local restaurants.

    And the Dance Marathon team let the Hopkins family know, right away, they’d be eligible for scholarships should their boys — 14 or 15 years down the road — choose to attend the University of Iowa.

    “We always considered ourselves Hawkeyes,” Kiefer said. “But that sealed it — he will be a Hawkeye.”

    Bubby wasn’t able to make it to this year’s big dance party. But Maddux was and quickly found his buddies.

    “Even more than seeing (UI mascot) Herky — and he loves Herky — he couldn’t wait to see his friends from Dance Marathon,” Kiefer said.


    ‘Made her days a lot shorter’

    The night of the big event — at midnight exactly — April Drew, of Vinton, and her seven-year-old daughter Isabel climbed onto the main stage to share their story.

    Isabel was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in March 2017. It was spring break, and she was tired all the time. A trip to urgent care prompted blood work.

    “I don’t think the doctor believed the results he got,” Drew said. “So he took it a second time.”

    That confirmed it — cancer.

    “The first few days it was just disbelief,” Drew said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around that kind of diagnosis. You don’t ever think it’s going to be your kid.”

    Her husband used a Charlie Brown video about cancer to explain the illness to Isabel.

    “We did our best to prepare her for each step as it came,” Drew recalled — mentioning her daughter’s once long blond hair, now shorn. “We talked about it going to other kids who needed wigs, and maybe one day she would get one.”

    Isabel went through three kinds of chemo in four intense cycles — bringing her to today.

    “With leukemia, it’s never 100-percent gone,” Drew said. “But the hope is she stays in remission forever ...

    “You don’t ever want to see your child go through that,” Drew said. “It was horrible to watch her feel sick, and with almost every round of chemo she ended up spiking a fever. With one round she was so sick it hurt just to move.”

    Which made the fun that Dance Marathon volunteers delivered the most impactful part of their philanthropy.

    “There were a lot of volunteers who came in and made her (difficult) days a lot shorter,” Drew said.


    ‘Anything we wanted’

    As part of the Dance Marathon main event at the UI, organizers light a candle. They read names. They drape a quilt over an Iowa Memorial Union balcony all in remembrance of members of the Dance Marathon family who have died over the past 24 years, since the organization’s inception.

    The Schroeders for years donated to Dance Marathon but never expected they’d be among the families with kids who are “dancing in our hearts,” as the organization puts it. But on April 28, 2015, Austin “Flash” Schroeder died of T-lymphoblastic lymphoma at age 15.

    He had been diagnosed just a year earlier. He was an Iowa City West High kid, and well known in the Iowa City community. He played baseball — he wore No. 22. Even today — three years later — emblems of red with a yellow lightning bolt decorate car bumpers, T-shirts, hats and lapels.

    Dance Marathon students who knew Austin write letters to the family to check in. They send invitations to water parks and sporting events for the Schroeders’ other children — 12-year-old Haley and 15-year-old Cody.

    They let the couple reminisce about their son — their favorite topic of conversation — even when it evokes tears.

    “I’m just actually connecting with him, and all it is love and how much we miss him,” Craig Schroeder said of his son. “And I want to feel that. I’m OK with that emotion because it’s connecting me with him whenever we have those conversations ...

    “There’s this whole organization that’s all student run that is like this big huge engine that’s constantly cranking and cranking and cranking and constantly supporting people,” he said. “It’s just constantly driving and pushing. And nobody knows. And it’s all kids. All college kids.”

    After Austin died, another surprise.

    Craig Schroeder recalled. “All of a sudden, someone comes up and says, just so you know, Dance Marathon provides $5,000 for funeral expenses.”

    “We just weren’t expecting it.” Stacy Schroder said. “Anything we wanted, they were wonderful.”

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