When Jonathan Walker steps out on the floor at this year’s Rutgers Dance Marathon, the sophomore will remember the nervous excitement he experienced the first time he participated in 2013 – when he was 16 and bald from 10 months of treatment for leukemia.
That year, as a patient, Walker gave a rousing speech expressing his gratitude to the tired but exuberant students who had been on their feet for 30 hours straight to raise funds for Embrace Kids Foundation, which had helped him when he was diagnosed earlier that year.
He will also be thinking of Armann Saxena, the Rutgers student and Embrace Kids volunteer who stayed by his side, lending moral support and evoking much-needed laughter during his long days at the hospital.
“As a former ‘kid,’ I am excited to be on the other end of the dance marathon,” says Walker, who, as a volunteer with Embrace Kids, now supports a 9-year-old girl in her struggle with anemia along with his fraternity Theta Tau.
Rutgers University has a long history of volunteerism with the Embrace Kids Foundation – a New Brunswick-based nonprofit that provides assistance for the non-medical needs of children with cancer and blood disorders in the New Jersey-New York region. Through a program known as RU4Kids, the university matches undergraduates with families of children in treatment. Student volunteers visit patients in the hospital and organize activities and parties throughout the year.
In Walker’s case, on the morning after he was diagnosed, a group of students delivered a goodie bag of games to keep him occupied during his hospitalization. They also threw him a surprise party for his 16th birthday, which occurred two weeks after his diagnosis.
“These visits from the students, especially Armaan, who I still see today, made a huge difference in my morale,” says Walker. “I actually looked forward to my chemotherapy treatments. Yes, there were going to be needles and medicine, but I went to have fun with my friends. The more people who came, the better I felt.”
When Walker became a Rutgers freshman in 2015, his leukemia in remission, he decided to give back to the organization that had become his lifeline in recovery. He signed up to help plan the Rutgers Dance Marathon, which has been raising funds for Embrace Kids since 2000.
The dance marathon has become the largest, student-run philanthropic event in New Jersey, donating more than $4.9 million to the foundation to date. “The monetary support my family received while I was in treatment was so appreciated; they gave me grocery and retail store gift cards, and a gas card to commute from home to the clinic and hospital,” Walker says. “When I was preparing for college I received a $5,000 scholarship.”This year’s marathon, which takes place April 1 and 2, is a little different than in years past when, typically, more than 1,000 Rutgers students and alumni from across the nation have filled the dance floor at Rutgers Athletic Center for 30 consecutive hours of activity. Organizers of Rutgers Dance Marathon 2016 have split the time into two 12-hour blocks to better accommodate dancers’ schedules.
“Participants don’t have to actually dance all those hours. The only rule is you can’t sit down – unless, of course, you’re riding a big trike or the mechanical bull,” says Walker. The group stays motivated by such activities as hourly line-dances, movies, athletic games, arcades and costume changes to reflect themes like “Hawaiian,” “sports” or “jungle” that rotate every few hours.
Walker, who participated as a dancer for the first time last year, says the event is a lot of fun but not easy. “I hit a wall after 18 hours,” he says. “My feet were hurting and felt like there was putty on my soles. I just leaned against a wall until I got my second wind.”
But a burst of energy fills the room in the marathon’s final hour, when the families and children Embrace Kids assists, join the dancers. Alumna Nicole Hreno, a fourth-grade teacher in Woodcliff Lake and a former director of the marathon who has participated each year for a decade, says that “Family Hour” brings home the magnitude of the dancers’ support – both financial and emotional.
“It’s the end, you are in pain, but you realize that the discomfort you think is so huge is nothing in comparison to what these children and their families are going through,” the Clifton resident says. “Many of us have built a relationship with these families, and the bond does not end with our graduation. I still attend birthday parties and the child I was matched with asked me to be his confirmation sponsor.”
“Family hour is an uplifting time for everyone – children, families and volunteers,” Walker says. “It gives us all a moment to recognize how much power we have to change lives when we come together.”
For more information, contact Patti Verbanas at 848-932-0551 or email@example.com