The world screeched to a halt throughout the COVID–19 pandemic, disrupting the world’s daily routines as we knew them. Nonetheless, stay–at–home orders and social distancing during a national public health emergency would not—and could not—postpone pediatric cancer. Families and children would continue to receive the terrifying news that their lives would change forever. For these families, there’s no alternative to taking on the challenge, despite societal shifts. The world simply does not stop for them as the all–consuming clouds of cancer press further and further, surrounding families while brewing a formidable storm of suffering and sacrifice. Waiting just isn’t a possibility.
September marked Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, the month of the gold ribbon honoring the perseverance and challenges of childhood cancer. Just like gold endures fire, these children’s legacies are indestructible—and students here at Penn took initiative to carry them on.
Miracle Network Dance Marathon is a student–led movement leading a push to protect children’s health by raising both awareness and critical funding for children’s hospitals. A national program connected to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, the organization boasts the mission to benefit member hospitals in donations for treatments, services, medical equipment, and support innovative research with the hope of easing the difficulties of hospital stays and financial stresses on parents. Chapters of Dance Marathon exist across over 400 college campuses with thousands of participants uniting year–round in the philanthropic campaign to change the future.
Despite the fact that every school–day an estimated 46 children are diagnosed with childhood cancer, the life–threatening disease is vastly underfunded. Only four percent of funding from The National Cancer Institute is allocated towards all pediatric cancers combined. Children currently battling cancer deserve more than that miniscule fraction, as well as the children who fought ceaselessly until their last breath.
Recognizing this stark reality, Penn student Brianna Fisher (C ‘24) reached out to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to revive Dance Marathon at Penn. Lo and behold, three other students also had the same ambitions; coincidentally, Emily Milgrim (N ‘25), Nicholas Bambach (C ‘25) and Brenden Burke (C ‘24) also independently reached out to CHOP to start an event to raise money for the same cause.
From there, CHOP introduced the four passionate students to each other who would then go on to form the backbone of Dance Marathon at Penn. Together, they built the organization from the ground up, meeting with CHOP representatives and eventually expanding their executive board to 11 members to bring the same enthusiasm from other campuses’ Dance Marathons to Penn. The revival was only made possible through their spontaneous connections with CHOP. Last spring, they jump–started the initiative to prepare for this fall.
“We were really lucky that there was a lot of interest in starting this program and that we were all somehow connected by the same couple of people at CHOP, so that we could find each other and start working together,” Brianna says.
Prior to the pandemic, there were two Dance Marathons in 2016 and 2018 that held fundraising events including group dance, speakers, games, and light refreshments with a kid–focused approach. Now, because of Brianna, Emily, Nico, Brendan, and their co–board members, Penn students can participate in the first event at Penn in four years this November.
“At Penn, it’s easy to find your niche and group, but this organization is allowing clubs and organizations, [from] all different realms, to fall under one roof to fight cancer and give back to the greater Philadelphia community,” Emily says.
For Nico, his ambitions come from personal experience. “In high school, the event we were fundraising for was raising money for the hospital where I had one of my brain cancer surgeries, which also made me want to continue in college and bring it here because I had such a great experience. Now, I run the internal side of the club and work with everyone as a group,” Nico says.
Nico introduced the up–and–coming Penn club to Sophie Coutu (C ‘25), who became the morale chair and attributes her passions to Dance Marathon in rallying students for a unified cause. “Who doesn’t love to hang out with their friends and eat food while helping others?” Sophie says. Because of social distancing restrictions and cautionary protocols during the pandemic, the club was unable to find spaces on campus to meet in person, so they often took to Zoom. “This semester we have been able to work together face to face and be much more productive [to] get the wheels spinning.” Nico says.
At the event, Miracle families attend and share their stories, reminding students why organizations like Dance Marathon exist. In an emotionally powerful moment, families speak about their experiences and how they have been directly impacted from fundraising.
Morgan McGroarty (N ‘23), aspires to work at CHOP as a pediatric oncology nurse practitioner. “With Dance Marathon, I wanted to do something that can make an impact on CHOP and the children. It can be a student bonding experience for one cause,” she says. “My family has experience with cancer—anything we can do to work towards solving it can make a difference.”
“Eventually my hope is that we can rent out The Palestra and hold a big event bringing in thousands of people for the kids. With passionate people, we can do it.” Morgan continues.
“In high school, one of our speakers told us about how it’s great that we are raising money for treatments, medicine, but also [especially] for families who now live at the hospital and need money for groceries, laundry—day–to–day things that many don’t think about,” Brianna says. “It’s really special and easy to get involved; there is something tangible that comes out of this.”
Raising awareness is of utmost importance. Cancer diagnosis generates instant catastrophe as families’ hopes for the future alter dramatically and goals in the present moment shift to the forefront more than ever—even in light of optimism. Families experience denial, fear, depression; children feel confused and scared. Through Dance Marathon, students can galvanize others to band together to lessen families’ hardships—as demonstrated by Penn volunteers’ continued dedication.
With the onset of October, we notice many changes, ranging from seasons changing to leaves falling to emerging pumpkins and spirit. More importantly, though, it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Together, we can actively work towards a cure, and engaging in Dance Marathon is one more way to support the cause.
On Child Health Day, Penn’s Dance Marathon held a “Cupcakes for a Cause” event, donating all proceeds from the event’s sweet treats. As Emily says, “We hope to create a charitable Penn tradition that passes on long after we graduate, and we can’t wait to see people on the dance floor [soon].”