Still dancing: Zags energy pours over to benefit hospitalized kids at Sacred Heart

Treva Lind, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
·5 min read

Apr. 8—An extra dose of Zags vibes will extend beyond March Madness, scoring a win for kids in the hospital.

Despite challenges — both around fundraisers and attention riveted to the men's and women's basketball teams — Gonzaga students rallied three weeks ago to net $31,290 this year for patients at Sacred Heart Children's Hospital.

Their work included a scaled-down March 19 Zagathon with socially distanced students dancing on campus to raise funds in the final push after months of seeking donations.

A local Providence Health Care fundraising leader described it as a welcome surprise when considering pandemic limits on events and that all eyes were on college basketball.

"It's really inspiring this year in particular because the students were not able to do their traditional fundraising methods throughout the year, " said Mary Hollingsworth, a program director with Children's Miracle Network Hospitals in Spokane.

Plus, she knew students as well as residents in Spokane had their attention on the NCAA Championship in Indianapolis.

"We were almost like if you want to pass and if you can't put your energy into this, it's OK, but this fueled them to again go bigger and work harder. They were more inspired."

For the past seven years, the student-run Zagathon group has raised a total of $350,000 for Sacred Heart Children's Hospital within the network of Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.

Students host fundraisers throughout the school year and raise awareness about local kids in the hospital leading up to the Zagathon dance rally, typically an eight-hour marathon every March.

If medically allowed, a few of the young patients and their siblings go for short spurts to each Zagathon to share their family stories and dance alongside college students.

That was all different this year, but the students still figured out how to tell the kids' stories while invoking Zag Nation spirit, including music over speakers and dance moves seen by students during games in the Kennel.

"This year, that piece couldn't happen for the siblings and patients to come, but the students still came together, danced on their behalf, and they recorded their dancing to be able to share out," Hollingsworth said.

"They all had their masks on, there were bottles of sanitizer everywhere, temperature checks at the door, and they had, of course, limits on how many students could come in overall."

The Zagathon contributions go toward specialized medical equipment and for support services such as art and music therapy, Hollingsworth said.

Allie Avaiusini, Zagathon co-executive director, said this year brought multiple challenges. "It was a weird transition at first figuring out how we would go about raising funds for kids who are immuno-compromised, also while we're following guidelines, and there are not many events on campus," Avaiusini said.

Earlier ideas went virtual or fell through, including one with live musicians outdoors. Just before Zagathon time, the state COVID-19 Phase 3 guidelines opened to have roughly 50 students pass through, staggered a bit and where they could go to different, socially distanced stations set up in about one-third of the Hemmingson ballroom.

Avaiusini said the decision to go forward with Zagathon pivoted around connections to the hospitalized children, many known by name among the Gonzaga students in the group as "miracle kids." The Zagathon website shares several patients' stories with photos, and the group remembers the kids they met who have lost their lives.

"We kept brainstorming, and we didn't really give up, which I was really proud about because we still wanted to do something for these kids who we have been helping ever since we've been here at college," Avaiusini said. "We wanted to do something special for them."

Katie Bull, also co-executive director, said this year's event ran three hours instead of eight. Students sent out social media posts and texts seeking donations from friends and family.

"It's a pretty big space, so we had different stations," Bull said. "We had one station honoring the miracle kids, a fundraising station, an apparel station, a photo booth, and we played music.

"We really worked to attach the cause connection and why we're doing this to the event. Obviously, it looked different. Normally, we have 500 to 600 attendees, but that wasn't feasible this year."

The group created a candle-lit area and provided tea bags for students to write messages to give to children in the hospital. Videos of the patients' stories were shared.

One space honored Sacred Heart Children's Hospital patient Alison, an early visitor to Zagathon, when it was previously called Gonzaga University Dance Marathon.

"We first met Alison when she and her family stood on stage in February at Dance Marathon 2017. She bravely shared her story, spoke of her hopes and dreams and danced the night away with us," says a dedication on the group's website.

"Sadly, Alison passed away in January 2018 after a three-year-long battle with cancer. She was 11 years old. Alison embodied love and cared more about others than herself, especially her little brother, Ethan. Alison's shining spirit and beautiful smile lives on through her family, friends and all of us here at Zagathon."

Hollingsworth attended most of the Zagathon and noticed some March Madness energy spilled over.

"During the event, they kept playing their typical soundtrack of songs and music that they listen to during a Gonzaga game," Hollingsworth said. "They were blasting all of that during this Zagathon repeatedly. It was like on a loop.

"They were doing the jump that they do during the games when they're all in the bleachers pounding up and down. They were doing the same kinds of moves. This was almost like because they couldn't be at the game, it was a great outlet for all that energy."

But she said it was clear something else motivated the students.

"Just knowing that what they're doing benefits so many patients and families at the hospital," she said. "The students came up to me and thanked me repeatedly for allowing them to do this for our patients and families."