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, there’s only one person Ali regrets won’t be there to hold her hand on the BJC floor this year.
Last winter, as Alpha Xi Delta’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 there’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.
“She was like a little sister to me right away,” Ali says, recalling how a weekend spent dancing in the stands with Hope turned into frequent visits to the family’s home in Manchester, Pennsylvania, and as Hope became progressively sicker, the hospital in Hershey. “Every time we visited she would always ask us, ‘Are you cold? Are you comfortable? Do you need my blanket? Do you want food?’ She would call the nurses in and have them turn the heat down. It was just anything for us.”
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.
“I think back to what I was like when I was 13 or 14 and I feel like I was such a brat,” she says. “I always fought with my brothers, but she would always write notes for her brothers and to her parents.”
The wellbeing of her brothers was Hope’s top priority, even when she was at her most ill. According to Ali, “She always used to say, ‘I feel like my brothers aren’t getting enough attention.'” At Hope’s request, Alpha Xi Delta’s partner fraternity would frequently take the boys out for a ‘guys’ day.’ “The boys loved them,” 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.
“It’s so weird to think about when you met someone and how quickly they became important to you,” Ali says. “Everyone in the sorority would always joke with me, ‘She’s obsessed with you!’ But we really were just so quickly best friends. It’s so weird, someone who’s 14 and 21, obviously you don’t have a lot in common, but she inspired me to be so much better of a person.”
For Hope’s fourteenth birthday, Alpha Xi Delta and her family surprised Hope at the hospital with a Hawaiian-themed party. But because she couldn’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 Grande’s attention. In response, the singer sent Hope an elaborate gift basket.
It was on Hope’s birthday, though, that the girls realized just how critical their THON child’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.
“[At her birthday party] though, we were sitting down because it was too hot for her and she held my hand and started crying,” Ali says. “It was so easy for us to say, ‘Oh, she’s so strong, she’s got this.’ But seeing her breakdown was so difficult. We had to realize, no, she’s not okay, she’s not getting better.”
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 girl’s side but Ali.
“If I were a parent, I don’t know how much I would want to give my time away,” says Ali. “But they always wanted us to be with her, even up until the very end.”
Coming back to school and resuming preparations for THON 2016 in January was, to say the least, difficult for Ali, but she says it’s the knowledge that Hope is still with her in some way that will make her 46-hour stand this weekend worth it.
“I just feel like every time I get upset, it’s so evident that she’s with me,” Ali says. “I’m not this crazy spiritual person, that’s not who I am. But if I get upset in the car, her song will come one. She’s here. She is.”
At THON Hoops last fall, Ali remembers standing arm-in-arm with Hope on the BJC floor and telling her, “This is going to be us come THON. You and me down here and me holding you up.”
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 Hope’s memory with Hope Hour by wearing purple – Hope’s favorite color – t-shirts in the stands.
“It’s obviously not going to be what I expected it would be,” she says. “But her family is here and I’m going to be holding her memory and her family up, just showing them how much we love them and we’re still there for them.”