raiseRED students holding their $507,203.37 total
raiseRED students revealed the 2021 total at Cardinal Stadium.

If you’ve been involved with UofL for any length of time, you’ve likely heard about raiseRED. The university’s largest student-led fundraiser, culminated by an 18-hour dance marathon, has brought in more than $3 million in the last seven years to fund pediatric hematology and oncology research and patient needs.

While that monetary accomplishment is astonishing in itself, it just scratches the surface of the organization’s lasting impact.

Emma Gabbard, a senior nursing student from Fishers, Indiana, has been involved in dance marathons like raiseRED since she was a freshman in high school. Like many involved in dance marathons, Gabbard was hooked in no time. She joined the committee her sophomore year and realized as a junior that she had found her path.

“I was super connected to the families that we were supporting through fundraising and heard the way they talked about their nurses and saw the bonds that the kids formed with their nurses,” Gabbard said. “That’s when I chose to do nursing.”

By the time she was a senior, Gabbard was the president of the Fishers High School Dance Marathon, but she knew she couldn’t leave such a big part of her life behind when she went off for college.

“When looking for colleges, I was super nerdy and looked for dance marathons before I even applied,” Gabbard said. “All six schools that I applied to had dance marathon programs.”

UofL stood out for Gabbard in part because of the nursing program and beautiful campus. Jordan Meddings, her campus tour guide, ultimately helped to sway her decision. At the time, he was applying to raiseRED’s executive board and could answer all of her dance marathon questions.

RaiseRED students’ campus experiences and lives are enriched by the memories they make and relationships they form. They get to see the direct impact the money they raise has on the community. That money funds patient needs, research at the UofL School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics’ Division of Hematology and Oncology and the new beneficiary, Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, which supports a clinical social worker, nurse and child life specialist.

Gabbard got a closer look at this impact over the summer, when she got a job at Norton through the Student Nurse Apprenticeship Program. The dream she had as a junior in high school was reaffirmed. Without a doubt, she wants to be a pediatric nurse.

Emma Gabbard in scrubs
Emma Gabbard worked as a nurse in the Cardiac ICU at Norton Hospital as a part of the Student Nurse Apprenticeship Program.

“[At a meeting] we had to say what raiseRED meant to us in one word,” she said. “For me, that was ‘motivational.’ No matter what I do [to fundraise], it never feels like a job. Whether it’s a meeting or [breaking down] the volleyball courts for raiseRED money, it’s always something I get to do, not something I have to do.”

Every year, hundreds of students from across campus are motivated by a common goal – to improve the lives of strangers tackling the unimaginable. RaiseRED isn’t just about a fun-filled, 18-hour dance marathon. Last year made that very clear.

“In non-COVID years, we’d have an event every month,” Gabbard said. “Last year we couldn’t do that, so we started doing bedtime stories on Zoom. They kind of turned into a bi-weekly talent show and we were able to form more of an intimate connection with the kids.”

Instead of thinking about the next treatment or doctor’s appointment, kids had a chance to just be kids. For the students, it was incredibly fulfilling. The pandemic did not stop them from building relationships with the kids and their families, and although it was more challenging, it certainly did not stop them from fundraising.   

“At reveal last year, we raised half a million dollars during a pandemic,” Gabbard said. “It struck me that a group of people, no matter the size, no matter the circumstance, can come together for bigger causes to put aside our differences and change part of how we want to see the world.”

Last year’s total, although it didn’t break the organization’s record of $690,921.70, left many speechless. During a pandemic, 1,000 college students navigated unprecedented uncertainties – and changed the entire model of the signature event – to raise $507,203.37 for the kids. 

Students hold up signs for the reveal
Emma Gabbard (right) with members of raiseRED’s 2021 Executive Board

The money raised by this growing group of students is symbolic of a true community of care. It is symbolic of a year of passionate and determined hard work. And most importantly, it is symbolic of hope. Hope for a future, for better treatments or more time, and for a cure.

“My goal in my career is to make sure that all patients and families feel heard, seen and valued,” Gabbard said. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life – make differences in people’s lives … My mission is to get kids a tomorrow.”