Six-year-old Beckett Genuardi, fidgeting in his mother’s lap, smiled and stuck his tongue out at the more than 60 UF students who tuned into Miracle Moments via Zoom. Beckett is one of the children who has benefited from fundraising events like Transform Today in Dance Marathon.

With in-person and livestreamed events due to COVID-19, Transform Today raised $578,874.31. 

Transform Today is a UF student-run event where each dollar raised goes toward pediatric patients at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, Gainesville’s local Children’s Miracle Network Hospital. This year, $74,000 less was fundraised during Transform Today compared to 2019.

The two-day event ran from Tuesday at 8 a.m. to Wednesday at 10:12 a.m. – or 26.2 hours, the amount of time that fundraisers dance during Dance Marathon’s largest fundraising event in the Spring. While many children battling illnesses were given the opportunity to tune in online, others were invited to attend the in-person events, despite the risk of COVID-19. 

Speaking events like Circle of Hope, Be the Light and Celebration of Miracles were streamed online on Dance Marathon’s Instagram and Facebook pages. Pediatric patients and their families also shared their medical triumphs, called Miracle Moments, on Zoom throughout Tuesday. 

Genuardi was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart cannot pump enough blood in the body, at 2 months old. 

He was then sent to UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital on Christmas Eve. On Jan. 5, 2015, he received a Berlin Heart, an artificial heart, through Dance Marathon donations and ten days later, he found a matching heart donor. He commemorates his donated heart every year.

“He’ll celebrate his sixth heart day in January,” his mother said. “We’re just always so thankful and so grateful.”

Claire Essex’s story was also shared by her mother, Jessi Essex, Tuesday afternoon. Claire, 8, spent the first 64 days of her life in an NICU where she fought off an antibiotic resistant staph infection in her eye. Since then, she’s received occupational therapy and surgery at Shands.

She twirled in her violet princess costume as her mother talked about her favorite Halloween memories from last year.

“She was holding a whole bucket of candy and threw it all on the ground, and we had to stand there in the road and pick it all up,” Jessi, Claire’s mother, said. “She was laughing and we all laughed about it.”

The speaking events, livestreamed on social media, took place on the Reitz North Lawn and Norman Field. All attendees were required to wear face masks and social distance. Every participant was required to wear a wristband and check in at select rooms in the Reitz Union to aid UF’s contact tracing program. 

During the Tuesday morning Circle of Hope event, Shands CEO Edward Jimenez said he was thankful for the donations that have helped children overcome diseases such as heart disease, cancer and other ailments, he said. 

“You are all born to touch lives,” he said to UF students. “You are all born to make a difference.”

Tuesday night concluded with the Be the Light event where attendees raised their flashlights to symbolize the many donations made despite COVID-19. The Mann family also shared their daughter Alyssa’s story.

After she was born at 26 weeks and weighed one pound and four ounces, her doctors said she wouldn’t survive the night. Despite 127 surgeries, 30 infections and 6 cases of pneumonias, this year she turned 24 and celebrated her 22nd year with Dance Marathon.

“The times we were told she wouldn’t make it, there was a light,” her mother, Tina Hayes Mann, said. 

In celebration of the money raised, Dance Marathon hosted Moralloween on Wednesday from 4:45 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Flavet Field where participants played corn hole and other mini games.

Mary Grace Paris, Dance Marathon marketing manager, said about 250 students attended the event in 25-minute shifts. Anyone checking into the event completed a COVID-19 health screening and was required to wear a face mask at all times, Paris said. 

Volunteers cleaned booths each shift and supplied hand sanitizer to guests. Attendees were instructed to stay socially distanced with their ‘quaranteam,’ or group they arrived with, Paris said.

"I'm really proud of how we did this,” Paris said. “I think we made the best of our situation."

Masked UF students with glittering alien headbands, cowboy gear and blowup costumes worked the tables and filled the field. Miracle families, the families impacted by Dance Marathon donations, pushed strollers and wheelchairs across the grass, collecting beads and candy at the booths. 

All UF participants wore masks throughout the event but not all practiced social distancing.

Organizations like sororities ran the booths and met the miracle child they were paired with. 

Logan Lemke, a 22-year-old UF music education senior and member of Phi Gamma Delta, dressed up as an alien to match six-year-old Eva Owen’s astronaut costume. 

“It's just very humbling and exciting to be able to see the kids,” he said.

Ariana Aspuru and Lianna Hubbard contributed to this report.

Contact Kalia at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @richardsonkalia

Staff Writer

Kalia Richardson is a University General Assignment Reporter at The Alligator and a third-year journalism major at UF. Kalia also works as an editorial assistant for Rowdy Magazine and a National writer for HerCampus media.