Morgan Witherspoon said the Fort Mill community embraced her family when a brain tumor claimed the life of her 12-year-old sister, Jenna.
The town couldn’t bring Jenna back, but several of its residents kept her legacy alive by doing what they could — raising money in her name to help other children who face some of the same struggles.
“They started Jenna’s Legacy of Smiles because she was always known for her smiles,” said Witherspoon, who was 9 when her sister died on Dec. 27, 2006. “No matter what, throughout her battle, she was always smiling, even in her hospital bed.”
Witherspoon brought some of that transformative energy with her to Clemson University four years ago. And when she graduates May 9, she will walk out of Littlejohn Coliseum with more than a Bachelor of Science in industrial engineering.
Witherspoon will leave knowing that a piece of her late sister’s legacy is helping children in the Upstate.
She has devoted a large chunk of her time to Clemson Miracle, a student organization that raises money and awareness for Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Upstate.
Witherspoon joined Clemson Miracle as a member of the morale team when she was a freshman, became internal donor relations chair in her sophomore year, and served as executive director when she was a junior and senior.
In those four years, Clemson Miracle has raised more than $600,000. The funds have helped pay for the programs that insurance won’t cover, including a pediatric summer camp, the Canine F.E.T.C.H. Unit and a renovation of the healing garden.
“It really takes the entire Clemson community coming together,” Witherspoon said. “You can’t raise $200,000 with your 20-person executive board. That’s what I like about it– it’s everyone contributing. Whether you raised $10 or $1,000, you can say, ‘I’m part of that number.’”
Witherspoon oversaw about 100 volunteers as executive director of Clemson Miracle, but it didn’t get in the way of her excelling academically or professionally.
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In research conducted under lecturer Robert Riggs, Witherspoon analyzed data and helped create models aimed at more accurately triaging geriatric patients who fall and need to be taken to a hospital by ambulance.
The paper the team produced is on track to be published in the May issue of The American Surgeon, and Witherspoon is among the three student co-authors.
Riggs said that he invited Witherspoon to join the project after noticing she was one of the top students in his operations research class.
“She would come up with new things,” Riggs said. “You would give her the problem, and she would just get running.”
Witherspoon also managed to find time to intern for Duke Energy and Ross Stores and to do a Creative Inquiry project with The Boeing Co.
Her good work was recognized in April, when she received the Phi Kappa Phi Certificate of Merit in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences. The annual honor goes to students who have at least a 3.4 grade point average and have made noteworthy contributions to their departments, college or university.
Witherspoon is also receiving the Almeda Jacks Outstanding Undergraduate Student Award.
None of Witherspoon’s success comes as a surprise to her mother, Tricia Witherspoon, who works as a staff assistant in the neonatal unit of Levine Children’s Hospital, the same hospital where Jenna was treated.
“She’s determined,” Tricia Witherspoon said of Morgan. “That’s part of Morgan’s personality– she takes something on, and she’s going in 100 percent.”
Scott Mason, interim chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering, congratulated Witherspoon on her success.
“Morgan is an excellent student whose exemplary service sets the bar higher not only for her peers but for us all,” Mason said. “We are grateful she chose Clemson industrial engineering for her undergraduate degree and hope to see her back at Freeman Hall often.”
Witherspoon has secured a job as an industrial engineer with The Boeing Co. and will be headed to Charleston after graduation.
It’s clear, though, that she has left her mark where the Blue Ridge yawns its greatness.
Clemson Miracle has continued to break fundraising records, with large shares coming through its annual 12-hour dance marathon.
The organization cracked the six-figure mark for the first time in 2017. The following year, with Witherspoon serving as executive director, the nonprofit raised $234,851. This year’s total hit $230,759.
All told, Clemson Miracle has raised $748,558 in its 10-year history, said Lindsay Bridges, the Children’s Miracle Network manager for Prisma Health Upstate.
Bridges said it has been great working with Witherspoon.
“It’s amazing what these students do for us– the amount of money they raise and the amount of passion they have for helping others,” Bridges said. “We are so fortunate to be the beneficiary of Clemson Miracle.”
Witherspoon said that when she was a freshman she set a personal goal of raising $1,000 and thought it would be impossible. Over four years, she is personally responsible for raising about $12,000.
Nearly half came this year. Witherspoon explained in a Facebook post why she was raising money for Clemson Miracle, and her parents shared it with friends, who opened their checkbooks.
“I do it for Jenna,” Witherspoon wrote. “I do it to continue her legacy and spread joy like her smile did to everyone around her. I do it to ensure that every family can make hospital visits fun. I do it to help make memories that will last a lifetime for families no matter their outcome.
“I do it because no one should have to lose their sister, daughter, or friend to cancer.”
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