On a recent Friday night, 6-year-old Ashtyn Johnson twirled about the dance floor, giggling with newfound friends.
Whenever her attention waned, Catherine Ehlman, her patient pal through UofL’s RaiseRED organization, was there to find another way to make her smile, like having her pose for pictures with funny props.
Johnson even earned a grin-inducing award: most likely to wear pink.
For Johnson and her family, attending the RaiseRED Kids Prom was a hard-won treat.
She’s been at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, for the last seven months undergoing treatment for medulloblastoma, the most common cancerous brain tumor in children. After numerous rounds of radiation, chemo and two surgeries, she’s now cancer free.
“We’re new to RaiseRED, but appreciate the other families involved,” said her mom, Kiara Johnson. “When you’ve been through something like this, it’s super important to find people who get it.”
RaiseRED is UofL’s largest student-led philanthropy organization, raising more than $1.8 million in the last five years for the UofL Department of Pediatric Oncology and Hematology.
While many have heard of RaiseRED’s 18-hour Dance Marathon, a high-profile event which draws nearly 1,000 students, they may not realize that RaiseRED is busy throughout the year too, holding smaller fundraisers and supporting families of the clinic with events like Kids Prom and the patient pal program.
Now in its third year, the patient pal program pairs two UofL students with a child at the clinic. Kind of like pen pals, they stay in touch through texts and emails, and get together for movies, UofL ball games and other fun activities. There are 23 such pairs.
Ehlman, a junior majoring in elementary and special education, said she got involved because she loves working with kids.
“I feel blessed to be part of it,” she said.
Sporting a necktie around his head, Jake Devine, a sophomore civil engineering student, coaxed his patient pal Logan Collins to the dance floor. He had the 8-year-old leukemia survivor goofing off in no time.
“He’s got stars in his eyes for these guys, they’re super heroes to him,” said Josh Collins, Logan’s dad.
Josh Collins said the family has been involved with RaiseRED since Logan was diagnosed at 3 years old.
“All the money goes directly to the clinic where he received most of his treatment,” Josh Collins said. “They cure cancer.”
The family also has two other sons, who are teenagers, and the students involved with RaiseRED are great role models for them, he added.
“It inspires us,” he said. “Our teens see the efforts these guys put into this community service. It’s a life lesson for the whole family, really.”
David Turner, Jr., a 7-year-old with a cancerous tumor on his brain stem, took turns dancing with his mom and dad, all of them dressed to the nines.
“I’m very grateful for the program and the money it raises,” said his mom, Elizabeth Turner.
According to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, only 4 percent of federal cancer research funding goes to study pediatric cancer. She said that lack of federal funding makes RaiseRED dollars all the more important.
She said the family uses services that RaiseRED funds all the time, and they particularly appreciate the help of Spencer S. Moorman, the clinic’s social worker. RaiseRED funds her position.
“We couldn’t get the help we need without her,” she said.
The Turners, like most of the families, are hopeful to attend the Dance Marathon this year, slated for 6 p.m. Feb. 22-12 p.m. Feb. 23. Throughout the night, there are a variety of high-energy games, activities and team competitions.
The best part, they say, is that the kids are the stars of the show.
With a quick smile, Ashtyn Johnson said she’ll be there and she already had her pink outfit picked out.