These students provided a much-needed antidote

STRAY THOUGHTS

BY RANDY EVANS

Am I the only one who is discouraged these days?              

My state of mind is not helped by the news spewing out of Washington, D.C., and Des Moines many days.

It doesn’t help my attitude when I see one of the top aides at the White House resigning under public pressure after disclosures he blackened the eye of his first wife and emotionally and physically assaulted her and his second wife.

My mood worsened when the president and his chief of staff hurried to defend the wife-beating aide and all but pooh-poohed the women’s statements, in spite of the shocking photograph.

My attitude isn’t improved when members of the Iowa Legislature are talking about several bills that fall in the oh-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding category of lawmaking.

These include proposals that would reinstate the death penalty and another that would decree any abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, except to save the mother’s life, is murder and the doctor would face prison.

Another bill would cut the pay of members of the Iowa Supreme Court to $25,000 per year, the same salary members of the Legislature draw for working about one-third of the year.

And yet another bill would require the confiscation and destruction of any motor vehicle used by a person convicted of prostitution. The bill proposes no special punishment for people who patronize those prostitutes, however.

In spite of all of this, my mental state perked up considerably this month with some wonderful news out of Iowa City — news that provided a much-welcomed antidote to all of the disheartening headlines from Washington, D.C., and Des Moines.

I immediately found myself thinking back about a dozen years to a brave little girl named Leah and her parents who were consumed with worry as they hurried to University of Iowa Hospitals with her.

In case you missed the Iowa City headlines, about 3,000 UI students, all part of Dance Marathon, the largest student group at the university, raised a record $3 million in the past 12 months.

The achievement was announced at the end of their annual 24-hour celebration. With this year’s total, Dance Marathon students in Iowa City have raised a staggering $27 million since the organization began in 1994.

That’s something we all can celebrate.

All of the money goes to provide emotional, medical and financial support to help pediatric cancer patients at the UI’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City — the hospital made famous across the United States by the “Hawkeye Wave” on football Saturdays.

Raphael Hirsch, chief of physicians at the hospital, told reporters at the Dance Marathon, “In my years here as physician chief of the children’s hospital, I’ve met a lot of impressive people. These students, I can say without a moment of hesitation, are the most impressive people in my life.

“A lot of times people think that age group is focused on themselves. These young people are focused on families going through a hard time.”

Kids like Leah, the niece of one of my Des Moines Register colleagues, whose early years were filled with cancer treatments, anxiety and prayers.

At a time when some of our political leaders like to portray young people as too lazy to get off their butts or too willing to let someone else pay for their education or too focused on drunken partying, Dance Marathon is something entirely different.

The students now help 800 families whose children are going through cancer treatment in Iowa City. The students visit the kids each week and organize events around the state where cancer kids can get away from doctors and nurses and just have fun between hospital visits.

Dance Marathon’s gifts help families meet their insurance deductibles and, in later years, provide scholarships for those cancer kids if they choose to attend the UI.

A $1 million Dance Marathon gift paid for a cancer research laboratory at the UI. When Stead Family Children’s Hospital was being planned, Dance Marathon pledged $5 million, and the 11th floor is named the Dance Marathon Pediatric Cancer Center. There was another $2 million for the hospital to create a targeted cancer therapy program. And last month, the UI students endowed the Dance Marathon chair in pediatric oncology research with another $2 million gift.

Dylan Lloyd, the morale director for this year’s Dance Marathon team, summed up the motivation that keeps 3,000 college students on their feet for 24 hours: “The purpose of this crazy dance party is to celebrate for the kiddos who have won their battle against cancer, stand by those who are still fighting, and honor those who are dancing in our hearts.”

Leah has remained in my heart as she persevered through cancer treatments and moved from elementary school, through middle school and on into high school. Now 16, Leah has her cancer behind her but she is still dancing — now at homecoming.

We all can use a dose of good news, and the Dance Marathon students and memories of what Leah went through certainly have given all Iowans something to cheer about — not jeer about.