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Madison Grasty smiles for a group photo with Izabella Neira (far right) and her three sisters (from left) Jessy, Mia and Alynna during a high school Dance Marathon.

Madison Grasty was asleep in Prague when her phone lit up with notifications from family and friends trying to reach her. There was exciting news waiting for her to wake up.

Miracle Network Dance Marathon named Grasty a recipient of the National 2019 Miracle Network Dance Marathon Distinguished Leadership Award. The award was given in mid-May.

Grasty, a 23-year-old UF information systems and operations management graduate, was one of 20 college student leaders selected from thousands of applications across the country.

Although Grasty raised $22,745 over the course of five years, she said she believes the winners were chosen based on overall involvement and passion for the cause instead of based on the money they raised.

“The primary reason is we are all passionate students who have worked hard giving back to the cause we love most,” Grasty said. “No matter what you’re doing, if you’re doing something for Dance Marathon, you are making a tangible impact on kids at the hospital.”

According to a press release, Miracle Network Dance Marathon works with the nonprofit organization Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals to raise funds and awareness for 170 pediatric hospitals across the country.

The leadership award recipients were recognized for their impact on the program, their individual college campus and their local Children’s Miracle Network Hospital, according to the press release.

Lindsay Ritenbaugh works closely with Dance Marathon at UF as its hospital adviser. She is the senior development associate for Children’s Miracle Network at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital.

In 2019, UF had 6,020 students registered to participate on campus, along with hundreds of alumni, community partners, families and high schoolers supporting from around the state and country, said Ritenbaugh.

As the adviser, Ritenbaugh’s responsibilities include guiding and advising organization members like Grasty.

Miracle Network Dance Marathon looks for people who are making an impact in the community, said Ritenbaugh.

“They’re looking for people who are leaders on paper but also leaders in their actions,” Ritenbaugh said.

The award is only given to graduating seniors, Ritenbaugh said. The recipients were chosen after the majority of the participating schools were done with their marathons. More than 300 Dance Marathons happen around the country, said Ritenbaugh.

Dance Marathon at UF is the second highest fundraising Miracle Network Dance Marathon program in the nation, raising $3,230,025.23 in 2019 and more than $21.4 million since it started in 1995, said Ritenbaugh.

Grasty was a part of the Dance Marathon organization at UF for five years, holding numerous leadership and involvement positions.

“She really wanted to look at the whole picture,” Ritenbaugh said. “Instead of just saying, ‘how can I make my Dance Marathon better?’, she wanted to make it better for every single person.”

In addition to her fundraising efforts, Grasty always went the extra mile in getting to know the miracle families of Children’s Miracle Network.

Krystina Lopez, the mother of miracle child Izabella Neira, met Grasty when she first started her involvement in Dance Marathon and was able to watch her grow into the leader she is today.

 “She goes above and beyond for the kids, and the families absolutely appreciate it,” Lopez said. “I’ve seen her flourish into a strong, compassionate, dedicated young woman and am so blessed to now call her a friend.”

Lopez said Grasty has developed meaningful connections with all of her children.

“Even before the end of Dance Marathon 2019, my kids were crying about the fact that they would have to say goodbye to her this year,” Lopez said.

John Lauck, president and CEO of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, described the award recipients as being the core of the Miracle Network Dance Marathon mission.

“Each student honored has led his or her Dance Marathon organization to success by serving as a role model for other students, while growing the Dance Marathon movement on their campus,” Lauck said.

The students are committed to the cause and demonstrate that commitment through personal fundraising and advocating for the life-saving work local children’s hospitals engage in daily, he said.

According to the network’s website, Grasty served as recruitment captain for Dance Marathon at UF in 2016, assistant director of campus relations in 2017, internal communications manager in 2018 and executive director in 2019.

Grasty said she has received various awards and recognitions throughout her life, but this award was the highlight of her college career.

“I feel like I have done more in five years of college than I’ll ever do for the rest of my life,” Grasty said.

Grasty is the fourth UF recipient of the award in the three years it has been in existence. In 2018, Analiese Wagner received the award, and in 2017, both Drew Carlton and Kelsey Torgerson received it.

Grasty and the other award recipients will receive a plaque recognizing their leadership, as well as recognition on the Dance Marathon Facebook and Instagram channels and on the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals’ website, according to the press release.

Grasty plans to move to Philadelphia and has already registered to be a part of Dance Marathon Alumni. However, she wants to return to UF to support the big event next year.

“Dance Marathon at UF, just Shands in general and all our miracle families — it’s like you can’t really beat UF Health,” she said.