For University of Georgia students, Saturdays in Athens take many forms. Exciting football games. Late-night dinners downtown. Trips outside the city to soak up the limited time free from school and responsibilities.
But for one weekend in February every year, UGA’s Tate Student Center is filled with the sound of music, laughter, and the energy of 3,000 people working toward one common goal: to make a difference.
A Strong Start
As UGA Miracle’s 2018 Dance Marathon kicks off at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 17, droves of students wearing body paint, matching T-shirts, and glitter arrive eager to participate in the non-stop, 24-hour dance party to benefit Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Since its debut in 1998, UGA Miracle, the university’s chapter of the national Miracle network and advised out of the Greek Life Office, has grown into the largest student-run organization on campus. Dance Marathon is the culmination of a year’s worth of fundraising efforts, the product of thousands of dedicated members raising as much awareness and money as possible for a cause greater than themselves.
Every detail of the event, from the six catered meals donated by local restaurants to the bands that give free performances, is planned solely by students who have donated hundreds of hours of their time in the year leading up to Dance Marathon. The organization’s executive board includes 31 students, all of whom meet with their committees at least once a week to encourage them to contribute their portion to the cause.
“UGA Miracle has completely changed my outlook on UGA and the world in general,” says Maddie Dill, a fourth-year student and executive director of UGA Miracle. “Through this organization, I’ve been inspired by the compassion of my peers on this campus because I know that our student body is so dedicated to helping others.”
As Saturday morning turns to afternoon, dedicated dancers remain on their feet, visiting with Miracle kids (former or current Children’s Healthcare patients who have been paired with the organization) and participating in activities like talent shows and haircutting challenges to keep their spirits high. Words of encouragement to keep dancing are everywhere, from organization executives to students to Miracle families who have journeyed to Athens to participate in the marathon.
For some UGA students, Dance Marathon is a fun, one-time opportunity to raise money for a good cause while hanging out with friends. For others, it is just another day in a life that has been committed to serving the community.
Service is prevalent among students across all organizations, majors, and class years. Many encounter service organizations within their first few days on campus, encouraging a continuation of lifelong service for some and igniting a fresh desire to give back in the same way as their peers in others. And there is no shortage of resources provided by the university to connect students with service projects; the Center for Leadership and Service in Student Affairs is one such resource.
“We’re always looking at service through the lens of not only contributing to the community but also to student learning,” says center director Jen Rentschler. “I want students to learn from their experiences by engaging in meaningful and ongoing service, not just feel like they can swoop in and fix something with one project.
“One program that upholds this model is ServeUGA, which connects student ambassadors with local nonprofit organizations. Emily Stone, fourth-year student and director of outreach for ServeUGA, found a passion for service in participating organizations like UGA Miracle and now devotes her college career to service.
“I think it’s important for students to find the right form of service for them and make a deeper connection with giving back,” Stone says. “It’s so easy to get caught up in your own world in college, and I think participating in service helps connect people back to the world around them.”
ServeUGA makes volunteer opportunities accessible for all students, hosting annual events like the Dawg Day of Service and Interfaith Service Day alongside its Serve Athens initiative, which provides ongoing service opportunities within the Athens community.
And these connections have paid off. Between fall 2015 and fall 2017, with the help of programs like ServeUGA, the Center for Leadership and Service has recorded more than 50,000 hours of student service—equivalent to one person working eight hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year for 24 years.
As day turns to night and then early morning at Dance Marathon, exhaustion sets in: Participants lie side-by-side on the floor, coffee consumption spikes, and last-minute fundraising initiatives are met with renewed urgency. But as Sunday dawns, the dancers are re-energized with the knowledge that when the clock hits 10 a.m and the final fundraising total is revealed, all their effort will be worthwhile.
It’s not just about raising money, though. The theme for the 2018 Dance Marathon, “Miracles Beyond Measure,” emphasizes the organization’s mission to make not just a financial impact but an emotional and personal one as well.
For many participants, service is about building relationships, making meaningful connections, and ultimately feeling a part of something larger than oneself. Kelly McKibbin, a fourth-year Miracle member and co-chair of the Dance Marathon Event Planning Committee, poured herself into Miracle because of the depth of these connections.
“You don’t really realize the impact that a group of people can have until you’re at Dance Marathon,” McKibbin says. “Seeing how this passionate and caring group’s work affects other people is the most rewarding part of all.”
There is no shortage of emotion as Dance Marathon comes to an end: joyous laughter at accomplishment, unabashed crying from exhaustion and the inspirational stories of young survivors. Miracle kids fill the stage, lifting the 2018 fundraising total above their heads to a chorus of screams. Exhausted dancers sob on each other’s shoulders as they finally see the fruit of their labor: $1,261,077, all for the kids.
This story appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Georgia Magazine.