This past April, under the sky-high ceiling of LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center, colored lights flashed and music blared, turning the arena into a makeshift dancehall where groups of college students grabbed a mic and stepped up on stage to cheer on the revelers below. Fellow students in coordinated outfits shuffled to the beat or else practiced the choreography required for the next group dance challenge, which would be happening any minute. Their mission: remain on their feet for a total of 12 hours, all while dodging the groups of children running, sliding and scampering around the space, some of whom would have to return to the hospital by morning.
This wasn’t your typical college party, of course. The young philanthropists were instead attending the flagship “Big Event” for Dance Marathon at LSU, the local chapter of a national organization in partnership with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, for which the group has been breaking college fundraising records since landing on campus in 2013, raising $105,557 in its first year alone. In its LSU iteration, the fully student-run organization currently raises money for Baton Rouge’s Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital, which opened in 2019.
“I was originally told about the organization by my friend who is an actual dancer, but rest assured, Dance Marathon at LSU is not a dance team,” says Sarah Benoit, a senior mass communication major who serves as director of marketing for the nearly 500 students registered.
Founded in 1991, the organization traces its advent to the impact of Ryan White, who died of AIDS mere months before he was set to attend Indiana University as a teenager in 1990. After inspiring his own classmates to raise funds for other children and young people suffering from severe illness, the passion spread to other high schools and eventually to colleges like LSU, where Benoit and her vice president of marketing, sophomore Delaney Mobley, attribute Dance Marathon’s success to the up-close-and-personal nature of their fundraising and volunteerism.
“The fact that the Miracle Families themselves attend our events is one of the most powerful drivers of what we do,” says Mobley, referencing the current or former patients of Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital or other Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. “You really get to meet the people you’re trying to help, and you feel connected to what you’re fighting for. The fact that these kids are in and out of the hospital so often and still willing to show up and share their stories with us just proves that they’re more courageous than any of us will ever be.”
Though COVID-19 put a damper on the organization’s regular volunteer visits to the hospital itself during the past couple of years, Dance Marathon still manages to fundraise through several other avenues with sponsorship and partnership opportunities for events including 5K races, field days, concerts, an annual gala and campus outreach activities. Members also partner with local businesses to donate percentages of their proceeds, and they host a “LEAD” program for LSU freshmen each year to acquaint them with the ins and outs of fundraising and outreach. Each year’s fundraising campaign also features a specific theme; the 2022-2023 theme is “We’re All In.”
“We had a ‘Battle of the Bars’ last year that helped us raise a tremendous amount of money,” says Benoit. “You wouldn’t expect that from a college bar or an SEC university known for being a party school, but that’s part of why it’s such a fun organization to be a part of. There’s such a diversity of students involved, which is something we really pride ourselves on.”
In total, Dance Marathon at LSU has raised nearly $1.6 million through the years. A room in the children’s hospital has been dubbed the Dance Marathon at LSU Teen Lounge, where volunteers have hosted activities for recurring Teen Nights. For the students involved, the sense of camaraderie among volunteers can be just as valuable as the experience of serving Miracle Families.
“After we were stuck at home in quarantine, I was really craving a sense of community,” says Mobley. “I started out helping with graphic design in hopes that it would be something to boost my resume, but soon I just fell in love with all of it. I don’t think you’d be able to get this kind of experience in any other organization at LSU.”