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Katie Black was at a loss for words when she first heard the news. One of the children who attended daycare at Clemson First Baptist Church in the same class as her daughter, Parker Ann, was diagnosed with Wilms’s tumor — a rare cancer of the kidneys.
“I just remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh!’” she said. “I was crying to my office mates about a kid I know who had cancer, never thinking in a million years we would be experiencing something similar.”
A mere four months later — at Parker Ann’s 2-year-old wellness checkup — their pediatrician discovered she had an abnormally low level of hemoglobin. A month passed, and the level was lower. Another month later, and still the same trend.
That’s when Black — a public information officer with the student services center in Clemson University’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences — knew something was wrong.
“I didn’t expect cancer until we were sent to see an oncologist,” she said. “Parker Ann was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common childhood cancer. The hardest part was hearing the treatment was going to take 2 ½ years. That was the biggest gut punch, because you never want your child to have cancer. She will have been in treatment longer than she’s been alive when all is said and done.”
Last year at this time, she was undergoing her first round of chemotherapy. She lost all her hair and was having difficulty gaining any weight. The Black family spent a lot of time at the children’s hospital at Prisma Health–Upstate (formerly GHS) in Greenville.
That’s what made Parker Ann’s appearance at Saturday’s Clemson Miracle Dance Marathon so special. She was welcomed to the Fike Recreation Center stage to a thunderous applause with her mom and older brother, Briggs, by her side. She was among several families to provide testimony during a 12-hour event led entirely by Clemson students and designed to raise money to support Prisma Health–Upstate in conjunction with the Children’s Miracle Network.
Today, after just over a year of treatment, Parker Ann is in remission. But the cancer would return without treatment. And even though the cure rate is about 90 percent, Katie Black knows her daughter still has a long road ahead. That’s why she marveled at Saturday’s event, which saw more than 400 students combine to raise $230,759.48 — a second consecutive record-breaking campaign by Clemson Miracle.
“It’s great to see so much care from Clemson students,” Black said. “We participate in all sorts of fundraisers and people have done so much for us, but this is an entirely different emotion. No one wants to see kids sick.”
More than 300 colleges and even high schools are part of the Children’s Miracle Network Dance Marathon, a signature event that raised about $42 million nationwide in 2018. In the Southeast alone, 90 schools are part of the network and contributed over $14.5 million toward that total.
Clemson Miracle is in the midst of celebrating its 10th anniversary as a registered student organization, a number which serves as the basis behind the group’s theme on social media — #Envis10nMore. Saturday’s Dance Marathon proved to be the final push the organization needed to reach its goals of providing $100,000 apiece toward two focus areas: the Canine F.E.T.C.H. (Friends Encouraging Therapeutic Coping and Healing) Endowment and Clemson Miracle Camp Endowment.
“We love dogs and bringing therapeutic help to kids receiving treatments in our facilities,” said Lindsay Bridges, a 2013 Clemson graduate and Children’s Miracle Network manager who works in Prisma’s corporate office in downtown Greenville. “The dogs are supported year to year thanks to Clemson Miracle’s efforts. The second endowment goes toward a bunch of medically supervised camps we offer for children who have cancer, diabetes and other diseases, or for families going through bereavement.”
Bridges, who has been in her role for 2 ½ years, manages Children’s Miracle Network campaigns supporting the Prisma children’s hospital for seven colleges and universities in the region, including some in western North Carolina.
The Dance Marathon saw teams of students — often designated as either a Greek Life sponsored organization or a leadership group on campus — raise funds through the DonorDrive nonprofit platform. As funds poured in throughout the day, Clemson Miracle finance director and senior accounting major Madison Mead was busy crunching the numbers and updating a master spreadsheet to provide an up-to-date total.
Inside Fike Recreation Center, the gyms used for intramural basketball were divided into two parts — one consisting of the main stage and dance floor space for participants, and the other dedicated to Miracle families, members of the Clemson Miracle executive board and for serving meals. The gym was decorated with FTK (For the Kids) signage from front to back. Just off the stage was an “Inspiration Station” — a banner including images and short stories of children who have been treated at Prisma — asking the all-important question to participants: “Who do you dance for?”
Throughout the 12 hours, interactive games were played and the crowd was treated to performances from a number of individuals and groups, including Clemson Dholna, a five-member team of students promoting Indian culture and style through a choreographed dance. Participants spoke with the Miracle families, played with the highly-trained Prisma facility dogs and snapped selfies with VIP guests such as Tiger quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Chase Brice.
It’s a major undertaking for anyone, let alone a college student. But for the second year in a row, the Dance Marathon was led by executive director Morgan Witherspoon. She’s a senior industrial engineering major from Fort Mill, South Carolina. And more so than just about anyone, she understands the mission behind Clemson Miracle. When she was younger, she lost her sister to brain cancer at age 9.
“I’m amazed by all the people that came out and stayed the entire 12 hours,” an exhausted Witherspoon said, moments after the conclusion of the event. “It’s not an easy thing to do. We had a great turnout with a wide variety of people on campus.”
Witherspoon has seen Clemson Miracle’s fundraising grow exponentially as a member of the organization, from eclipsing $100,000 for the first time in 2017 to consecutive years totaling nearly $500,000 during her two years as director.
Bret Koch, who serves as the Southeast area Dance Marathon manager for Children’s Miracle Network hospitals, is quick to credit Witherspoon’s leadership for helping expand Clemson’s impact.
“Their growth has just been incredible,” said Koch, who stepped into his role in July 2018 and serves as a coach for Clemson Miracle when it comes to long-term fundraising strategy and recruitment. “It’s been really cool having Morgan as executive director two years in a row. Morgan has a really strong connection with the hospital, which has established a great foundation.”
Throughout the 12-hour marathon, a group of 50 spirited students known better as the Clemson Miracle morale team was responsible for leading participants through a highly-choreographed, eight-minute line dance. Familiar opening chants of Archie Eversole’s “We Ready” gave way to a hodgepodge of popular hit songs past and present as co-chairs Caroline Welch and Louisa Guminski took turns teaching two-minute progressions.
For Welch, morale team was a natural fit, given her background as a competitive dancer at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill. After a brief detour as Clemson Miracle’s social media and content coordinator her junior year, she returned to morale for the 2019 event and led the team through several Sundays of practice to the backdrop of M.C. Hammer, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Sia, Toto and much more.
Welch is in the process of completing a co-op this semester with Crawford Strategy, an advertising and branding agency in Greenville. But she wasn’t going to miss this event. She received her first donation last summer and utilized her affinity for social media as a catalyst to raise more than ever before. She even agreed to post embarrassing pictures of herself on Instagram in exchange for donations.
“I raised $125 as a freshman and this year I got close to $2,000 in personal fundraising,” she said. “It’s crazy to see how the Dance Marathon has grown in that time.”
Ashley McMullen attended her first Dance Marathon as a high school freshman at Cardinal Newman School nearby Columbia, South Carolina. She found herself amazed by the smiles on the faces of 3-year-old patients who had been through more than she could have ever imagined.
Just one week later, she was hospitalized and diagnosed with anorexia. She wasn’t undergoing cancer, but she was embarrassed and felt isolated.
“I was sitting in the hospital and realized my classmates who were sending me letters and gifts were rallying behind me,” she said. “The week before, they were rallying behind those kids … and they didn’t care what background you had.”
Saturday marked seven years to the day that McMullen — internal operations director for Clemson Miracle and chief of staff for student government — moved from Palmetto Health into a long-term treatment facility.
“If I hadn’t had that experience as a freshman in high school, I wouldn’t have been part of Dance Marathon here at Clemson,” she said. “When I was in the hospital, I walked around my floor and saw equipment and rooms dedicated by the University of South Carolina Dance Marathon. I thought, ‘Wow, how meaningful is that?’ Those students fundraise throughout the year and dedicate themselves to kids they may never even meet. It helped me understand Dance Marathon isn’t just a one-day event; it’s not just four years of high school or college.”
True to her words, she recently was accepted into Florida State’s higher education master’s program and will be a graduate advisor for the Seminoles’ Dance Marathon. McMullen’s powerful testimony helped kick off the closing ceremonies in the 12th and final hour Saturday.
Following an hour of rave-style dancing, Witherspoon gathered everyone in front of the stage to name the 2019 Miracle Cup champions for large (Greek) and small (non-Greek) divisions among the participating teams. Points are accumulated through fundraising and event attendance, among other things. Kappa Delta was the large division winner, while Cooperative Student Fellowship claimed the small division championship.
One of the highlights in any Dance Marathon is what’s known as the “Circle of Hope.” On Saturday, Bridges and members of Clemson Miracle’s executive board made their way around the large circle of participants and clipped bands off their wrists as a sign of appreciation. Because it is supposed to mirror the feeling a child has when his or her wristband is removed following treatment in the hospital, the DJ fittingly played Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” — which includes a memorable lyric in its chorus, saying “’Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.”
After the circle, the group gathered one final time to complete the eight-minute line dance. In true Clemson fashion, the routine ended to the tune of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” with a clip of head football coach Dabo Swinney speaking in the background as dancers huddled together.
Witherspoon pulled it all together for the final reveal, where participants learned the dollar amount raised through the 2019 event. She invited the top individual fundraisers to the stage to unveil the numbers, while the remainder of the crowd was given the go-ahead to take a seat for the first time in 12 hours. She was rightfully proud of the final number.
“On behalf of our executive board, our committees and the morale team, I can’t thank all of the students enough for being here,” she told the crowd. “We work all year for this, and we are so glad we had a great group of students come out. No matter the number we flipped, it meant so much to the families who joined us.”
As always, Witherspoon was able to put a bow on what again proved to be a banner day.
“We are one of Prisma Health’s top donors, and that is because everyone contributed to making this happen,” she said. “Anything we can give them is more than they had yesterday.”
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