FIU raises more than $100k for sick children

Dance Marathon 2016 proved that good things really do come in threes.

First, the annual fund-raiser on behalf of ill children took in a record haul of more than $100,000 on the feet of 606 participants, the largest attendance in its 19-year history at FIU.

Second, an FIU professor for the first time went the full 17 hours on the dance floor – albeit it in a unique way that represented another first.

And finally, one recent graduate’s untiring efforts to make the event a blockbuster helped land her a full-time job.

“It was a team effort,” Elizabeth Mena insists of the runaway success of this year’s edition, which brought in more than twice as much money as last year for Miami Children’s Health Foundation. The December 2015 health services administration alumna served as director of the event and, after completing a certificate program in a couple of weeks, will head straight into a position with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, a non-profit organization that raises funds for medical research and community awareness of childhood health issues.

Mena credits her dedicated organizing committee for the banner outcome. Members raised some $30,000 prior to the event — through bakes sales, T-shirt sales and even ukulele-playing — and then drummed up enough interest to attract a record number of participants, each of whom brought $100 or more in contributions as an entrance fee. “Their passion convinced others to check out the event,” she says of the volunteers with whom she worked for nearly a year.

And fueling that passion: the stories of individual families whose children face daunting health challenges and yet manage to persevere with a sense of dignity, hope and even joy. These so-called “miracle families” speak at the event to encourage the dancers and thank them.

Kellen Hassell, a professor in the Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing & Health Sciences, played a dual role at Dance Marathon, or “Roarathon,” as it is sometimes known at FIU. He shared the story of his son Luc, who suffers with Angelman’s syndrome, a rare condition that mimics autism. And he decided to build awareness and contribute by riding a stationery bike on the dance floor.

Mena had taken a class with Hassell and said his dedication inspired others. “It was great when we had dancers who wanted to quit,” she says. “You had to look at the professor and keep going.”

Hassell pedaled in place for the equivalent of 232 miles over the 17 hours (with plenty of breaks in between). The exercise served as a warm up for his upcoming 1,000-mile bike ride from FIU to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which houses a clinic dedicated to the genetic disorder that affects his little boy. (See the video above to learn more.)

“We all were absolutely blown away by the support extended and love felt for Luc and our family,” Kellen said of the participating organizations that “adopted” his son and other children for the evening and showered them with gifts. “It was an experience of a lifetime and something that I and my family will cherish forever. I feel honored to have been a part of the project and can never thank all of the FIU student leaders enough.”

Mena, who says her five years with Dance Marathon clinched her getting the new job, took her own inspiration from a little girl for whom she cared a few years ago as a volunteer at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital (formerly Miami Children’s Hospital). Just weeks before the child passed away from leukemia, the youngster wrote thank you letters to those with whom she had become close. Mena still keeps the note in her wallet today, a reminder of the difference she made in someone’s life. “It was a driving force in my wanting to continue moving forward.”