Dance Marathon at the University of Michigan, a student-run organization that supports children with disabilities by raising funds and awareness for pediatric rehabilitation and therapy programs at C.S. Mott and Beaumont Children’s hospitals, hosted its first ever Family Circles night Saturday evening, which brought over 50 students, three DMUM families and several therapists together to share stories about dealing with disability as a part of everyday life and to build relationships between dancers, families and therapists.

Alicia DeMartini, an LSA senior and family relations chair for DMUM, explained the event used to be worked into the 24-hour VictorThon hosted in March each year, but families and students alike expressed an interest in expanding Family Circles by giving it its own night.

“It was one of my favorite events at VictorThon. I really love hearing the side of families, because sometimes it gets overlooked,” DeMartini said. “I hope that people see more of the family connection, the family aspect of what Dance Marathon is, rather than just having a fundraising total.”

Susan Smiddy, a music therapist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, kicked off the evening talking about the impact DMUM’s efforts have had on the music therapy program there, which is supported in part by the organization’s fundraising. She said the hospital engages patients with singing, songwriting and instruments, providing a sense of community and creating a space where kids can be kids.

“I just feel so honored to be here and to have you guys here to listen to their stories and everything they’re going through and how music is helping them,” she said.

According to Smiddy, the music therapy program’s success lies in its ability to give pediatric patients a sense of agency in their lives and a place for them to express their emotions through music. Some of the program’s patients, she said, even went on raise money for the hospital to buy more instruments for future patients because the therapy was so effective for them.

Becky McVey, a certified therapeutic rehabilitation specialist, followed with similar sentiments, noting DMUM’s contributions to adapted sports and recreation programs at Michigan Medicine.

Because of Dance Marathon, she said, there are now about 10 adaptive or inclusive activities run by Michigan Medicine, including martial arts, tree climbing, summer camps, kayaking and yoga. She led the audience in a brief yoga routine she does with her patients to demonstrate some of the work her program does.

Monica Phillipp, a DMUM alum who currently works at North Star Reach camp, talked about Dance Marathon’s role in helping her organization provide kids unique experiences through adaptive facilities such as a wheelchair accessible pool and tree house, which might otherwise be unavailable to children with disabilities.

DMUM’s fundraising helps fund these facilities and student dancers often make up some of the camp’s volunteer staff. For next year, she said, North Star Reach hopes to build an outpost where campers can sleep outdoors for a night.

“A lot of these kids have spent a lot of time in the hospital, so they aren’t really thinking about sleeping under the stars without their parents,” she said. “But the camp gives them that opportunity for independence and creates a place where everyone around them understands what they’re going through.”

Finally, three families shared their personal stories, giving student dancers a glimpse into their lives and how DMUM has affected them.

Larry Prout Jr. was born with his organs outside of his body and has had 100 surgeries to date since he was born in 2001.

“Larry didn’t walk until he was 9 years old, and now he’s out dancing with you guys,” said his father, Larry Prout Sr.

Wendy Muzzareli talked about how her daughter, Paige Muzzareli, would not have made the medical progress she has without the therapy supported by DMUM’s fundraising.

When Paige was born, doctors told Muzzareli her daughter would never talk, walk or eat on her own. Despite this, Muzzareli emphasized her daughter has been able to lead a rich and fulfilling life due to the care she has received.

“She’s here, she’s smiling, she knows how to make you feel better when you walk into a room,” said Muzzareli. “Therapy has basically made her able to sit here today, to walk in here today. Without that, we were told she would never.”

DMUM events like VictorThon also allow families to create strong connections within their local communities by participating in these activities.

“Dance Marathon has brought us closer to other families, too,” said Muzzareli.

Deb Diehr, mother of Tommy Diehr, who passed away earlier this year, echoed this appreciation for the organization.

“Many, many times last year we relied on the dance team their encouragement, the smiles they brought to the hospital room,” she said. “The gift that (Dance Marathon) gives to us as families is precious.”

LSA sophomore Amanda Wasserman, who is in her second year as a part of Dance Marathon, said Saturday’s Family Circles night helped her understand the importance of the work she does for DMUM throughout the year.

“It was an eye-opening experience. We could see where our fundraising is directly going towards, which is really rewarding,” she said. “The programs that Mott, Beaumont and the North Star Reach camp are able to provide to these kids are really incredible.”

Lillie Heyman, who is also an LSA sophomore, agreed.

“It’s really beneficial because you see how happy we make them. They come to so many events because they want to see us and we want to see them,” she said. “Doing more things like this will help get more people involved and make (Dance Marathon) an even bigger organization.”

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