Year 23 for the University of South Carolina’s largest student-run philanthropy included challenges unlike any other, but the USC Dance Marathon team persevered and succeeded despite it all.

The students raised $582,303 for the kids at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia with a nine-month fundraising campaign culminating with Saturday’s Main Event.

Planning for the event was affected by the pandemic. The 14-hour dance fundraiser usually takes place inside a gym, with more than 2,000 students on their feet all day. The 2021 version moved outside, to Greene St. in front of Russell House on the university campus. Students attended in shifts, all masked and socially distanced throughout.

The 2020 Main Event happened before the pandemic began, but when it did, the 2021 team saw the challenges coming. Some universities with dance marathon programs moved to virtual events, but the Gamecocks were determined to find a way to do it in person.

“We realized COVID isn't going away in time, but the kids are going to need us now more than ever,” said Caroline Selinger, an early childhood education major who is serving as vice president of productions for Dance Marathon this year. “We started looking at how we could deliver a safe but still fun event."

The money raised by USCDM, more than a million dollars each of the last three years, funds the hospital’s Child Life Department. The department provides, at no cost to the children and their families, comfort and support for the kids during their hospital experience. Child Life Specialists keep the children company, offer kid-friendly explanations of the procedures that are coming, and assist kids and families to make the hospital experience as pleasant as it possibly can be.

Many of the specialists joined the students for Saturday’s event. Past and present patients, known as Miracle Kids, appeared virtually, with the pandemic preventing them from attending in person as they do in normal years.

“You are our heroes and we can’t thank you enough,” Prisma Health Children’s Hospital Manager of Child Life and Special Programs Christy Fink told the students. The funding provided by USCDM kept the local Child Life Program fully staffed, while similar programs elsewhere in the country were forced to lay off staff due to a decrease during the pandemic in surgeries and other procedures that hospitals rely on for revenue.

Knowing the impact of their efforts has kept many of the students even more motivated than ever, as many have personal ties to childhood illnesses.

“I have a very sweet little three-year-old friend, Louise, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2019,” Selinger, who hopes to become a Child Life specialist, said. “There have been times I've wanted to stop because the work has gotten too hard, but Louise can't stop. She has to keep fighting, as do all these kids. I have the option to walk away, but those kids don't, so I would never."

With Main Event complete, the USCDM student leadership team will soon choose new leaders and the drive for 2022 will begin. More information is available at uscdm.org.

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