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On Sunday morning, UGA Miracle, the University of Georgia’s largest student-run philanthropy, announced it had raised $1,167,175.22 for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Nearly 2,500 students representing more than 50 student organizations gathered in Tate Student Center Grand Hall and via live stream overnight Saturday to Sunday for UGA Miracle’s annual Dance Marathon.

Beginning at noon on Saturday and lasting until Sunday afternoon, thousands of students, faculty, staff and members of “Miracle Families” danced, enjoyed live music and continued fundraising for the final few hours of a yearlong effort.

This was the 27th annual Dance Marathon and the first fully in-person event after a two-year hiatus due to safety precautions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event is a symbolic gesture of sacrificing a day in support of children who have had to sacrifice much more of their own time to combat illness in hospitals. Since its inception, Miracle has raised more than $11 million for Children’s Healthcare – $7 million of that total coming in the last seven years.

Hairy Dawg joined the Dance Marathon celebration. (UGA Miracle)

The final fundraising total represents the entire year’s effort, including milestone events like “Beyond Limits” and “Ring the Bell” day, when the students raised more than $208,000 and $40,000, respectively.

Each year, the first million dollars raised goes to support the Comprehensive Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit (CIRU). All funds raised above $1 million go to the AFLAC cancer and blood disorders unit, supporting child-life specialists and hospital life. The largest gym in the CIRU is named after UGA Miracle, where UGA students typically meet with their “Miracle children” on hospital visits.

This year’s event marked the return of traditional activities, such as the “hair chop challenge,” morale dances, games and activities for the children and their families, and the student-favorite “silent disco,” along with new additions such as a hypnotist who performed at 4:30 in the morning.

Though Dance Marathon’s origins are in Greek Life, the event and UGA Miracle have grown in recent years to include students and organizations from across campus, including teams from Athletics, individual school and college majors, professional schools, and various university departments.

Students celebrate a CHOA patient during the Dance Marathon. (UGA Miracle)

The most stirring aspect of Dance Marathon is the attendance of the “Miracle children,” Children’s Healthcare patients who interact with Miracle’s student members during the year. Last year, the children and families were unable to attend in person, but joined via Zoom. They were delighted to return to the Tate Center this year to share their inspirational stories in person.

“It was amazing what we were able to accomplish last year, having to do everything online,” said Annabelle Smith, hospital relations co-chair for UGA Miracle. “But the scale of the traditional event doesn’t quite come through when you have to live stream from your living room. We were looking forward to getting that full energy back, seeing everyone all together.”

The Miracle children themselves were likely the most excited about seeing their friends and the UGA students. Last October, organization members and the children and their families gathered at Washington Farms in Oconee County for the first in-person family day in over a year.

“When families started to arrive and see and hug each other for the first time since COVID began, it was just so heartwarming to see how happy they were and how much they love and missed each other,” said Emma Ward, family relations co-chair for UGA Miracle. “They adore Miracle and we adore them.”

CHOA patient Laney Barfield enters the hall for the Dance Marathon. (UGA Miracle)

A challenge that continued this year was the students’ inability to go to the hospital to visit with their children and families. Though the fundraising is an important part of UGA Miracle’s mission, the primary focus of the students is supporting the children and health care workers at CHOA.

“It was for an understandable reason, of course,” said Smith. “But we had to find new ways to motivate our organization that’s built around supporting the hospital and those relationships.”

In lieu of hospital visits, this year CHOA offered the students the opportunity to visit the CHOA Mission Center, where they were able to view and learn about future initiatives, such as CHOA forthcoming flagship facility, the Arthur M. Blank Hospital.

“This is going to be the best hospital in the Southeast that will serve families from all around the country and the world, and UGA Miracle gets to make a big difference in it,” said Smith. “The campaign to support this new, amazing facility gives us renewed energy and purpose.”

UGA students are a bunch of smart people who want to make their mark.” —Emma Ward

Ward, who is from Jackson, Mississippi, said that it is really easy to see the passion that UGA students have for service and campus engagement.

“UGA students are a bunch of smart people who want to make their mark,” she said. “You have this big storm of people who feed off each other’s desire to engage with the community and serve and give back. We’re all nerds and we love student organizations and we all have fun. We’re all really focused on doing well in school and contributing to the community. It’s the type of person UGA brings to campus, and it’s the type of culture they find when they get here.”

Smith added that forming relationships and making memories is the best part of the experience.

“UGA Miracle will always be a big part of my life,” she said. “The fundraising total doesn’t matter as much as the love we’ve put into this and the love that we received from being a part of it.”

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