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Dancing for Life

by Allen Wallace

Caroline Grier with Cocky at USCDM Main Event

Saturday, the University of South Carolina Dance Marathon’s year-long effort to raise $1,190,000 for the kids at Prisma Health Children’s Hospital — Midlands will come to an end with the student organization’s 14-hour Main Event.

More than 2,000 students will participate Saturday and all will contribute to the final total, to be revealed as Main Event draws to a close near midnight. For the USCDM staff (the student volunteers who have led the way since April 2018) and especially the seniors, it will be the climax of an effort to which they have devoted themselves to an extent few volunteers ever do.

"For me, it's like a full time job. I had a dream about minis last night. I think that's when you take your director position to the next level,” said USCDM Mini-Marathons Director Caroline Grier. “It's inspiring, the passion all of our staff has for this organization and how badly we want to succeed and how badly we want our campus to love these kids and this cause."

Grier attended Main Event as a freshman with her Chi Omega sorority sisters, not knowing what to expect and not knowing much about the cause.

"I got there and that was the day my whole college career changed forever,” she said. "I love kids in the first place, but hearing stories about kids in the hospital and how this organization impacts their day to day lives was so moving to me. I was like 'I have to do this again.'"

Do it again she did, joining the staff as a junior and becoming a director this year. The Mini-Marathons are events at local high schools, allowing high school students to get involved and support USCDM.

"Showing them how to take the care they have for others and make it grow has been my favorite part of this organization,” Grier said. "I have grown so much as a person being in this position."

The theme of growth is one often echoed by USCDM leaders. Helping lead the university’s largest student-run philanthropic organization is no small task, and the lessons learned carry over long after graduation. Grier said her leadership abilities have improved by leaps and bounds, along with her professional communication skills and ability to delegate.

"Not taking it all on myself has been a big thing for me, learning to work with others,” she said.

"I'm not going to be able to plan five minis by myself. That's why I have committee members, and they're amazing.”

Grier has also been inspired by the high school students she and her committee lead, especially at the moment last fall when she met with the Cardinal Newman student leaders and suggested they set a fundraising goal of $44,000.

"They said ‘That's cool. We're going to raise $55,000," Grier said. "Their determination has been unmatched. I have not seen anything like it. They inspire me every single day to do more, to be the best director I can be to take them as far as I possibly can."

Every member of the USCDM staff devotes full-time hours to the organization. All are volunteers. Few receive much individual recognition or acclaim. All spend time (including weekend nights) working for the kids when they could be doing so many different things, things others would say are more fun. Asked why they work so hard and give so much of themselves, Grier answers without hesitation, almost before the question is complete.

"The kids. The kids. Knowing they're going to benefit from this drastically," she said. USCDM fully funds the Child Life program at the hospital, and has paid for additional projects like a specially-designed playground to be built for the use of the patients, known far and wide as Miracle Kids. USCDM staff have all spent time at the hospital, getting to know the kids and families and seeing just how important the program they support really is.

"Because we fund the Child Life program, they don't have to sedate as many kids just to put a cast on them," Grier said. "A kid who's going to have brain surgery number seven is going to be walked through the procedure and know exactly what's going to happen."

Grier has also stood beside a childhood friend who has battled severe health problems for years, and seeing that friend’s treatment has also been an inspiration when the hours get long and exhaustion sets in.

"I have had mental breakdowns, I have cried, I have been so stressed out, but it's all worth it in the end knowing that people like my friend Elizabeth are going to be better off. Even though they're in the hospital, it's going to be a better experience because of the Child Life program,” she said. "Knowing people like her have benefitted is the most rewarding part of everything we do."

Passion for the kids often means tears. No one complains.

Grier has seen USCDM grow as an organization in size and scope, with the yearly fundraising total rising swiftly from $527,810 to $703,289 to last year’s historic $1,025,171. It’s a record any nonprofit, any business, would be thrilled to claim, and one earned completely by volunteer college students.

"I don't think you can walk around campus and not know what Dance Marathon is, and that's because of the work over the last years people have been putting in, giving their everything to this organization,” Grier said. “What I'm going to remember in 10 years is my first Main Event when [Miracle Kid] Benjamin Brown was on stage. He told us about how he was getting bullied at school. This sweet little kid was getting bullied at school because they thought he was weird. We are all a little weird in this world! That moment was when I knew I wanted to do Dance Marathon for the rest of college."

With her graduation day set for December, Saturday will be Grier’s last Main Event as a staff member. The event runs from 10 a.m. until midnight, but she will arrive hours early and leave well into the wee hours, giving everything she has and soaking in every moment.

She has personally raised more than $5,000 this year and is pushing to get to $6,000. Donations will be accepted through her fundraising page.

Grier knows, however, that her commitment to USCDM will not end after Saturday, or later in March after the Cardinal Newman mini, or even when she graduates. Alumni join in fundraising every year, because their passion for the kids never goes away. She said it best with a smile while discussing the future.

“No one ever really leaves.”

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