IOWA CITY — In the final two-week stretch before the University of Iowa’s 24th Dance Marathon next month, the enterprising student-run organization on Friday made a first-of-its-kind promise.
Over the next two years, UI Dance Marathon will give $2 million to establish a University of Iowa Dance Marathon Chair in Pediatric Oncology, Clinical and Translational Research.
The donation — which will come in $1 million annual installments — marks the first student-funded chair in UI history.
It will support a faculty position leading the pediatric cancer research program in the UI Stead Family Department of Pediatrics in the new 14-story, $360 million UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital, which opened about one year ago.
“That is what we do,” UI senior Alex Linden, executive director of UI Dance Marathon, told a crowd after announcing the gift Friday afternoon. “It’s what Hawkeyes do. We take care of our neighbors.”
Dance Marathon — an initiative committed to raising awareness and money for pediatric cancer — is the largest student-run organization on the UI campus and the third largest Children’s Miracle Network Dance Marathon of more than 300 nationwide.
The year-round endeavor culminates with a “big event” — Feb. 2 and 3 this year — during which thousands stay on their feet for 24 straight hours, dancing and participating in activities and other entertainment. Participants must raise at least $500 and cannot sit, sleep or drink caffeine.
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Since the UI program’s inception, it has raised more than $21.5 million, annually breaking records, including last year’s $2.5 million total.
Linden told The Gazette he expects to be surpass that again this year by at least 3 percent.
“But I really don’t want to harp on that,” he said. “I don’t think we should ever be recognized on the number, even though that is substantial. We should be recognized and remembered for what the money does.”
Over the years, it has done a lot.
In 2011, Dance Marathon made the lead gift to build the new children’s hospital — a 10-year $5 million commitment.
In 2015, the student group pledged $2.2 million to create a pediatric oncology-targeted therapy program.
Linden said his group already has the $2 million it’s giving for the new faculty position.
“The funds are already here,” he said. “We are not committing any gifts that we can’t afford.”
The donation comes as all of Iowa’s public universities are facing state funding cuts and increased competition to recruit and retain top faculty.
UI Health Care also is going through a transition after Jean Robillard, longtime vice president for medical affairs of UI Health Care and dean of the Carver College of Medicine, stepped down late last year and Brooks Jackson took over.
That change came less than a year after the campus debuted its new Children’s Hospital, which has garnered national attention thanks to a new tradition involving neighboring Kinnick Stadium. After the first quarter of home football games, fans inside the stadium turn and wave to children receiving care in the hospital — the same kids who inspire Iowa’s marathon dancers.
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“This gift from UI Dance Marathon is extraordinary,” Jackson said. “These students are compassionate individuals and exemplary citizens, and they inspire all of us.”
Those people and their passion are among the reasons UI senior Lexxi O’Brien, 21, and UI junior Jenna Larson, 20, got involved as freshmen and have been involved since.
“Not only do I love the cause and the whole reason why we do this 24-hour gig ... but something that I really cherish through Dance Marathon is the people,” Larson said. “I’ve never met a greater group of leaders, of driven and dedicated people.”
The enthusiasm is infectious, with 3,000 dancers signed up to participate next month.
“I’m always blown away at the work that 300 leadership members can do, the work that 3,000 dancers can do, all to support such an amazing cause,” Larson said.
O’Brien noted student leaders find their niche in Dance Marathon as a place to hone professional skills and gain experience.
“It’s a lot of people doing what they love for what they love,” she said.
If you go:
What: Dance Marathon 24 Big Event
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 2 through 7 p.m. Feb. 3
Where: Iowa Memorial Union, 125 N. Madison St. in Iowa City
For more information: Visit https://dancemarathon.uiowa.edu/