Starting Saturday afternoon, University of Kentucky senior Alex Wade will spend 24 hours dancing to raise money for young cancer patients at Kentucky Children's Hospital. Yes to bathroom breaks, no to sitting or sleeping.
It's a big weekend for the UK DanceBlue organization, which seeks to top last year's fundraising haul of $1.1 million. For Wade and other students involved with DanceBlue, the marathon is just one event in a year-round commitment to the children and their families at what is now the DanceBlue Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic at Kentucky Children's Hospital.
Wade and 30 other UK students spend time every week doing whatever needs to be done. That could mean cleaning toilets, but mostly, Wade said, they try to make things as much fun as possible for the children going through cancer treatments: board and video games, parties and playtimes.
"I thought that I would be overwhelmed with the magnitude of what these families were feeling, but not one time have I heard one of the kids complain," said Wade, a graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington. "They're so strong, and that's an inspiration for us. It brings so much humility to what we're doing.
"To be a part of their life is an honor and a blessing. It kind of gives you a boost of energy because it's the best part of our week. You always want to be in the clinic because it's such a positive situation."
Now in its ninth year, DanceBlue has raised more than $5 million for the clinic.
Fundraising is a year-long affair — bake sales, car washes and UK alumni functions — that ends with the dance marathon, where the year's total is revealed. The fundraisers have generated about $4.6 million of the total, which was boosted last year by the Joy R. Willis DanceBlue Endowment Fund of $500,000.
The dance marathon — held at Memorial Coliseum — attracts more than 100 organizations and 800 dancers, who have received pledges for each hour they dance. It's a highly choreographed event, and it's open to the public.
DanceBlue will accept pledges until noon Saturday.
Over the years, the DanceBlue money has helped pay for a clinical research nurse, testing equipment and leukemia research. It started a patient assistance fund to help families with gas and lodging, and it was used to hire a "child life professional," a kind of counselor who helps children and their families work through difficult events.
This year, the DanceBlue money will be used to hire a school specialist, someone who can help patients bridge the school time lost while they're being treated.
"DanceBlue means so much to our patients and families, as well as to our physicians and health care staff," said Dr. Lars Wagner, chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at UK HealthCare. "The kids love interacting with the UK students, and it gives families an unexpected source of support and shows a real sense of community. To see how these busy college students take time to rally around these patients and their families really is immensely heartwarming."
Wade said he attended DanceBlue as a freshman, and those last few hours inspired him to join the organization. Since then, he has added pre-med requirements to his biosystems engineering major and decided to go to medical school. He will start at the UK College of Medicine in the fall, and he said he probably would go into pediatric oncology.
"I'm going to try to be as open as possible in rotations, but this changes your life," he said.