Taking a step into HuskyTHON means entering a huge room thick with dancers and jam-packed with palatable, contagious emotion. On Saturday through Sunday, UConn’s famous, annual 18-hour dance marathon changed the lives of not only the children it fundraised for, but of everyone involved.
At one end of the Hugh S. Greer Fieldhouse, HuskyTHON staff, children and students led the enormous crowd in dance as an 18-hour mashup of songs blared from the speakers. Every hour, they began the 10-minute-long morale dance to hype-up the tired participants. This dance was a distinct mashup of songs and children’s movie quotes that each had their own corresponding dance moves. The fast-paced nature of this dance made it all the more impressive to see thousands of bodies moving in sync.
In the back of the crowd, a small stage of students, parents and kids mimicked those on the bigger stage. Even when sleepiness won out and the masses hit a lull, the two stages were always in motion and music played nonstop, except during speeches. At the end of each morale dance, the story of one of the children at the marathon was told. During this time, everyone took a knee to show their respect and empathy for that child’s struggle.
Christine Dieme, the mother of Naimah Dieme, one of the children being supported, explained how her family ended up becoming part of HuskyTHON.
“She [Naimah] was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma when she was three, so we went through intensive chemotherapy from the time she was three to four, and then went on a clinical trial for another two years after that, so now she’s followed every six months to get MRIs and scans,” Dieme said.
After being told about Huskython from another family whom had been participating in it for 10 years, the Diemes decided to join in this year.
“I heard really good things about it and I just thought it would be something fun to do,” Genevieve Neiman, another one of the children being supported, said.
Off to the sides of the fieldhouse, there were a few booths set up. One of the booths encouraged participants to raise $53 each over the course of the night in honor of the 53 babies in the newborn intensive care unit being fundraised for. For each person who raised $53, a balloon was added to a bouquet of balloons in front of the booth. By noon, the bouquet was the size of a tree.
To the side of this booth were numerous, hand-decorated boxes, each labeled with the name of one of the kids at HuskyTHON. Students, especially those in clubs assigned to a specific child, were encouraged to write the kids letters and leave them in their boxes. Opposite to this booth were boxes where presents may be left for the kids. By the time the marathon was over, both these sets of boxes were full to the brim with either letters or presents. All of these booths were run by participants who had volunteered for the job.
“I was with Charge, the group, so we had Nick and he has cerebral palsy, and he’s like the sweetest kid ever,” Sydney Resnick, a second-semester elementary education major and first-time HuskyTHON dancer, said. “We got him a bunch of car toys and he was playing with them. He’s blowing bubbles right now, he’s the cutest kid ever.”
Toward the back, there was an inflatable obstacle course for participants and kids to race through. Behind this and through the door into the adjoining gym, kids and students played with basketballs and smaller rubber balls. Many students played or danced with the kids either one-on-one or in small groups. The kids seemed to smile the whole time they were there, never once being left alone by the adoring students.
“I think for the child, just being a normal kid and just knowing that people out there are supporting you and helping you to — are rooting for you to get better and to heal,” Dieme said. “For the siblings, I think they get to be regular kids as well, so their spotlight is not just on their sibling, but they get to partake on all the activities.”
HuskyTHON’s fundraising doesn’t only help young children. Erika Farrell, a sixth-semester nursing major at the Naugatuck Valley Community College and third-year attendee to HuskyTHON, explained her life as both fundraising pageant-winner and patient.
“So in 2014, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, autoimmune hepatitis and primary sclerosing cholangitis, which are two liver diseases,” Farrell said. “Since then I’ve been a patient at Connecticut Children’s. It’s been such an amazing journey being there because I am able to fundraise through the Miss America organization and also see where that money goes by being a patient.”
Farrell was winner of the Miss New Haven County pageant and had actually been in the hospital the night before she competed. Despite her own struggle with health, she is just as much a HuskyTHON dancer as anyone else.
“All the title holders raise money for Connecticut Children’s and we work with our national platform, which is Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, so through that we do a lot of fundraising for the hospital and then we go to certain events such as HuskyTHON and all the dance marathons to help raise more money and raise more awareness,” Farrell said.
Throughout the field house, dance representatives (DRs) encouraged people to dance and helped pump-up the morale dance. DRs were the people in charge of getting their clubs, organizations or Greek life to fundraise and come to HuskyTHON. They were also the ones who led the kids onstage Saturday night. Each club gets one or two kids to represent, so without the work of the DRs, many of these kids wouldn’t have received nearly as many presents, letters or students to dance with as they ended up getting Sunday. In addition to DRs, many student athletes came to encourage and support the children, including members of the basketball, football, cheer and women’s field hockey teams.
“I am [glad I did this],” Dieme said. “It’s very special to — you know the hospital’s been a huge part of our lives for the past seven years and just to know that, you know, there are people like you guys who do all the fundraising to let the kids be normal kids at the hospitals.”
After the 11-o’clock morale dance, everyone was asked to get in a circle for the bracelet cutting ceremony. During this ceremony, the children went around with scissors to cut off the medical bracelets on the participants’ wrists. This act is symbolic of how their own medical bracelets will be cut off when they no longer need to be in the hospital.
“I’m feeling pretty emotional,” Resnick said. “It was hard, I saw one of the moms crying. It’s just really intense, the kids got the power to just take off our bracelets but they can’t do that themselves, so that’s tough to think about.”
Emotions ran high during this time, with sad, hopeful music encouraging tears.
“I think it [the bracelet cutting ceremony] just kind of represents the freedom that we give to the kids that are able to come here and not be bound to the hospital walls,” Laura Roosevelt, the 2015 co-executive director of HuskyTHON, said. “And just, kind of, sending that message out to all the dancers.”
When Roosevelt was in charge in 2015, HuskyTHON broke $500,000 for the first time. She suspects that the work she and her staff did in reaching that goal helped to set the momentum for all the increasingly successful HuskyTHONs that followed.
“It’s crazy! I think last year hitting a million was insane, I can’t imagine what they’ve had to do to kind of keep that going, but I think they’re gonna totally surpass a million,” Roosevelt said. “It’s crazy just to see how big it’s gotten, like in just a few short years — the Day of Strength, we didn’t think we weren’t going to hit 25,000 and then they did everything they did. It’s crazy.”
After the bracelet cutting ceremony, there was one final morale dance before they revealed the total amount of money raised this year for HuskyTHON. As the dancers, especially the ones who had spent the night there in the field house, began their 18th morale dance, a change came over the crowd. Everyone’s faces were torn between an excited hopeful grin and teary-eyes. They danced with a force and emotion that showed exactly how much HuskyTHON had meant to them. Those that weren’t there as dancers stood to the side, struck by the raw emotion of the room.
As the music faded away, the HuskyTHON staff got on stage and knelt down in a line. Each had a flipped-over piece of white poster-paper in front of them. Tension began to build up in the air and everyone fell silent. The reveal they had spent the night, and likely much of the past semester working for was finally happening. Starting from the lowest digit, each staff member rose their number above their heads. When the last digit was raised, the one that indicated that not only had they reached a million but vastly surpassed it, a wild, intensely emotional cheer broke out through the crowd.
They had raised $1,328,402.19, which amounts to over $300,000 more than they had the year before. People all across the floor hugged their friends, crying and laughing with sheer joy.
“I was here for the full 18 hours,” Resnick said. “It’s been a journey, but I’m glad I went through it.”
For all those who were a part of this year’s HuskyTHON, it was an experience they will never forget.
“HuskyTHON changes lives,” Dan Epstein, an eighth-semester psychological sciences and human rights major and vice president of external relations at HuskyTHON, said. “A lot of the kids have said it’s better than Christmas and we can see the changes that we’re making in all of their lives. It really makes dreams come true.”
Rebecca Maher is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.