CHAPEL HILL - On any other day, Julia Heelan and Hayley Fowler might look out of place running circles around the field in Kenan Stadium as waves of snow dampened the ground and coin-sized flakes caught in their eyelashes.
But Saturday, Heelan and Fowler were two of about 1,600 UNC students on a mission to stay standing up for 24 straight hours as part of this year’s UNC Dance Marathon, an annual fundraiser for the patients and families at N.C. Children’s Hospital.
Students who raise at least $150 can participate in a 24-hour long dance party at Fetzer Gym, where many went to desperate measures to merely stay awake.
“I can’t feel anything at all,” said Heelan, a senior, as she maintained a slow jog around the field.
Heelan and Fowler, who weren’t the only students running around the field, pointed out that going numb was better than standing still on sore feet. “We’ve gotta just push through it,” Fowler said. “For the kids.”
The finish line finally came at 7:30 p.m.
Folks like Kathleen Henry appreciate it.
In 2008, Henry’s son, Collin, who is now 6, was diagnosed with leukemia. Medical bills quickly piled up, to the point where she says her husband, Robert Henry, a soldier based at Fort Bragg, volunteered for deployment to Afghanistan because he would make more money.
In 2010, Henry’s other son, Patrick, who is now 8, was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer. Kathleen Henry says her family has survived with the help of the Children’s Hospital, and it’s stayed financially stable with the help of the UNC Dance Marathon.
“We spend so much on hospital trips and prescriptions ... there have been times where I didn’t have enough money to buy groceries or pay for gas,” she said.
So there they were – the Henry family and other seriously ill children and their families – walking around Fetzer Gym among teenagers and twenty-somethings who wore brightly colored gym shorts, T-shirts and neon glow sticks.
It was the second time 9-year-old Drew Gradus, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, attended the event. A highlight from his last trip was when he danced with four girls.
“He looked forward to coming back,” said Paul Gradus, Drew’s dad. “And I do, too, because, honestly, I can’t say thank you enough.”
This year, the marathon raised . Since the first UNC Dance Marathon in 1998, it has raised a total of $3.3 million. Participation has risen, too. Over the years, the event expanded into both of the basketball courts at Fetzer Gym. Organizers also opened up hallways in the depths of the gym where those tired of dancing could retreat.
In a basement hallway at about 1:30 p.m., UNC-CH senior Morgan Zoellner squatted in a catcher’s stance as she typed on her computer. Zoellner said she should have been studying for a psychology midterm, but hadn’t summoned the energy to do so.
“Instead I’ve been on Facebook,” Zoellner said, noting that she had already consumed a Cheerwine and two cups of coffee.
“The key is staying fed,” she added.
Meanwhile, in a different hallway at about 2 p.m., first-year student Danielle Luffman was giving her feet a break about 12 seconds at a time by doing handstands against the wall.
“It really helps and you’re more awake,” said Luffman, whose faced turned as pink as her shirt as she tried to hold a handstand.
Luffman’s feet were still sore, so she did a cartwheel.
“Gotta get off my feet,” she said.
No doubt, the marathon’s beneficiaries would also cartwheel with Luffman if they could.