Ball State students paint signs they plan to use at the 10th annual Ball State Dance Marathon.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] lot has changed since the first Ball State Dance Marathon. Fundraising for Riley Hospital for Children has soared, as has the number of people who help raise that money spending half a day on their feet.

Then, there are the cameras.

“Believe it or not, people didn’t take pictures on their phones. They were little handheld point-and-shoot cameras,” said 2008 Dance Marathon President Chelsea Cantu, describing photos she and her peers took at the inaugural event. “The quality is not fantastic, but I think you can see the excitement.”

Students at the first Dance Marathon in 2008 reveal the $12,808.91 they raised.

The first Ball State Dance Marathon, in 2008, yielded a five-figure fundraising effort but set the stage for greater things to come. (Photo courtesy of Chelsea Cantu)

With the 10th annual Dance Marathon set for Feb. 25, that excitement has only grown. The campus’s largest student-run philanthropic event has, in nine years, raised more than $1.8 million for the Indianapolis hospital serving children throughout the state. This year, the event has more than 1,500 dancers (compared to roughly 100 the first year) and a fundraising goal of $765,000 (nearly 60 times the amount raised the first year).

Cantu, who as a result of her time as Dance Marathon president now works for Riley Children’s Foundation, marvels over the progress. The 2010 College of Communication, Information, and Media graduate who majored in public relations also remembers the heavy lifting of the first event.

Back then, she said, it was a big deal just to turn Dance Marathon into an independent student organization (it had previously been run by a fraternity and sorority). Achievements like finding a venue (the old Irving Gym), nailing down catering and getting an article in a newspaper were worth celebration.

“It certainly had its growing pains, but the individuals involved never lost sight of how important that transition would be,” said Cantu, who in her job at the Riley foundation helps families that want to find ways to express their gratitude for a child’s treatment. “What Ball State Dance Marathon is accomplishing today is far beyond our wildest dreams.”

Ball State is one in a nationwide network of more than 250 colleges and high schools that take part in Dance Marathon, all of which benefit the 170-plus U.S. children’s hospitals in the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. The program began in 1991 to honor child AIDS victim Ryan White and has since raised more than $62 million.

The money raised by Ball State’s Dance Marathon pays almost all the costs of two programs at Riley. Both, in very different ways, are designed to bring comfort to children at the hospital that records 300,000 patient visits each year.

Andrew Bova is seen dancing during the 2016 Dance Marathon.

Andrew Bova, part of the Morale Committee for the 2016 Dance Marathon, keeps the enthusiasm up during last year’s event. (Ball State photo)

One of them, the Palliative Care Program, is designed to reduce pain and discomfort for patients who have a life-limiting or life-threatening condition and allows them to focus on quality time with family.

Another, the Magic Castle Cart, is a program involving a large castle-shaped box on wheels that volunteers, usually Ball State students, take to patients’ rooms. There, they hand out a variety of toys, games and trinkets to add an air of normalcy to possibly anxious treatment situations.

Dance Marathon Executive Board member Morgan Polizzi fondly recalls the day the cart wheeled into her younger brother Jack’s room as he was receiving treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“Jack that day picked out some goofy clown glasses and, I think, a sudoku book and just little things to entertain patients and get their minds off their treatments,” she said.

Polizzi, a junior majoring in public relations and minoring in marketing, was then a senior at Carmel (Indiana) High School. Her brother’s condition led her to get involved with a Riley-affiliated Dance Marathon there — in part by selling “Attack with Jack” wristbands for a dollar a pop. She ended up raising more than $1,500, and her brother would later be declared cancer-free.

The Magic Castle Cart’s value to patients, one Riley Foundation official said, is hard to overestimate.

“It’s really important that we pay attention to needs outside of just the cutting and the stitching and the surgery,” said Emily Phipps, a Dance Marathon coordinator. “Maybe it’s a pencil or maybe it’s a (toy) flower or just a smile and a laugh that have proven to be huge when it comes to the healing process.”

Dance Marathon organizers get their photo taken with Charlie Cardinal during a recent men's volleyball game.

Dance Marathon organizers mug with Charlie Cardinal during a recent men’s volleyball game, one of several university athletic events where Ball State Athletics pledged $1 to Dance Marathon for every student who attended. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Logeman)

The kindness Polizzi’s brother received during the Magic Castle Cart visit left a mark on Polizzi, too. She cites it as a big reason she continued her Dance Marathon involvement when she began at Ball State.

Her freshman year, her work concerned the families of Riley patients. Her sophomore year, her first on the Executive Board, she was director of Greek recruitment.

Fast-forward to this past January: Polizzi joined her parents and older sister at Riley as their brother Jack rang a bell, a cherished rite among those who are declared cancer-free.

“We waited until my sister and I were both home for the holidays to do it,” Polizzi said. “So we celebrated a lot over winter break that he was finally done with treatment.”

The 12-plus hours that Polizzi and hundreds of other will spend on their feet Saturday could help sustain the Riley experience for future patients.

It’s a cycle of giving at Ball State, a seed planted 10 years ago that reaps rewards to this day.

“It was a barebones, grass-roots event,” Cantu said. “I think we felt confident that if we could just have one event, if it could just take place, then it could take off from there.”

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