Senior elementary education major Ali Smith will be standing 46 hours this weekend with over 700 fellow dancers, 3,400 committee members and 15,000 student volunteers. However, thereâ€™s only one person Ali regrets wonâ€™t be there to hold her hand on the BJC floor this year.
Last winter, as Alpha Xi Deltaâ€™s family relations chair, Ali shouldered the responsibility of finding a new THON child, which, after being turned down several times, was starting to seem more and more impossible as time began to run out. But if thereâ€™s anything Ali and the rest of her sisters would learn in the coming months, it was that where flowers bloom, so does hope.
THON 2015 was only a month away when Ali received the email introducing the sisterhood to their new THON child and family: Hope, 13 at the time, her two younger brothers, and her mom and dad. Ali and her sisters would officially meet their family for the first time at THON weekend, and begin a special relationship that would last long after those first 46 hours.
â€œShe was like a little sister to me right away,â€ Ali says, recalling how a weekend spent dancing in the stands with Hope turned into frequent visits to the familyâ€™s home in Manchester, Pennsylvania, and as Hope became progressively sicker, the hospital in Hershey. â€œEvery time we visited she would always ask us, â€˜Are you cold? Are you comfortable? Do you need my blanket? Do you want food?â€™ She would call the nurses in and have them turn the heat down. It was just anything for us.â€
It was this hospitality and selflessness that Ali says truly set Hope apart from other kids her age, especially in the face of her cancer diagnosis.
â€œI think back to what I was like when I was 13 or 14 and I feel like I was such a brat,â€ she says. â€œI always fought with my brothers, but she would always write notes for her brothers and to her parents.â€
The wellbeing of her brothers was Hopeâ€™s top priority, even when she was at her most ill. According to Ali, â€œShe always used to say, â€˜I feel like my brothers arenâ€™t getting enough attention.'” At Hopeâ€™s request, Alpha Xi Deltaâ€™s partner fraternity would frequently take the boys out for a â€˜guysâ€™ day.â€™ â€œThe boys loved them,â€ Ali says.
Although Hope handled her illness with grace far beyond her years, at the end of the day, Ali says she was still just like any other teenage girl. For homecoming, Hope invited Ali and her sisters to ride with her in the limo, and it was Ali she texted after her first kiss.
â€œItâ€™s so weird to think about when you met someone and how quickly they became important to you,â€ Ali says. â€œEveryone in the sorority would always joke with me, â€˜Sheâ€™s obsessed with you!â€™ But we really were just so quickly best friends. Itâ€™s so weird, someone whoâ€™s 14 and 21, obviously you donâ€™t have a lot in common, but she inspired me to be so much better of a person.â€
For Hopeâ€™s fourteenth birthday, Alpha Xi Delta and her family surprised Hope at the hospital with a Hawaiian-themed party. But because she couldnâ€™t leave Hershey, Hope had to miss an Ariana Grande concert, which Smith and the girls helped make up for by starting a Twitter campaign to catch Grandeâ€™s attention. In response, the singer sent Hope an elaborate gift basket.
It was on Hopeâ€™s birthday, though, that the girls realized just how critical their THON childâ€™s condition had become. In late April of last year Hope had undergone a surgery that successfully removed 95 percent of her tumor, and according to Ali, Hope had been feeling much better.
â€œ[At her birthday party] though, we were sitting down because it was too hot for her and she held my hand and started crying,â€ Ali says. â€œIt was so easy for us to say, â€˜Oh, sheâ€™s so strong, sheâ€™s got this.â€™ But seeing her breakdown was so difficult. We had to realize, no, sheâ€™s not okay, sheâ€™s not getting better.â€
Even when Hope had been moved to hospice care in October, her family made a point of having Ali and her sisters there, and when Hope finally passed over Christmas break, who else had been there by the girlâ€™s side but Ali.
â€œIf I were a parent, I donâ€™t know how much I would want to give my time away,â€ says Ali. â€œBut they always wanted us to be with her, even up until the very end.â€
Coming back to school and resuming preparations for THON 2016 in January was, to say the least, difficult for Ali, but she says itâ€™s the knowledge that Hope is still with her in some way that will make her 46-hour stand this weekend worth it.
â€œI just feel like every time I get upset, itâ€™s so evident that sheâ€™s with me,â€ Ali says. â€œIâ€™m not this crazy spiritual person, thatâ€™s not who I am. But if I get upset in the car, her song will come one. Sheâ€™s here. She is.â€
At THON Hoops last fall, Ali remembers standing arm-in-arm with Hope on the BJC floor and telling her, â€œThis is going to be us come THON. You and me down here and me holding you up.â€
Although Ali recognizes that things are going to be a little different from the weekend she envisioned just a few months ago, she knows Hope, although not there physically, won’t be absent from the event. Alpha Xi Delta and their partner fraternity will celebrate Hopeâ€™s memory with Hope Hour by wearing purple â€“ Hopeâ€™s favorite color â€“ t-shirts in the stands.
â€œItâ€™s obviously not going to be what I expected it would be,â€ she says. â€œBut her family is here and Iâ€™m going to be holding her memory and her family up, just showing them how much we love them and weâ€™re still there for them.â€