Story of Hope: Ryan, USA
By Jane Coaston | August 7, 2013
Ryan Darling is a young man in the United States living with HIV. After getting involved in Dance Marathon while attending UCLA, he helped to start Dance Marathon at the College of the Holy Cross. He shares his inspirational story of how Dance Marathon and EGPAF changed his life.
When I began my college career at UCLA in 2000, I expected the experience to change my life. But I could never have guessed at the ways college would do so, or how interconnected some of those ways might be. I wanted to fill my time with experiences that I would never forget. And I did – from studying political science to taking on student leadership positions to spending a year studying abroad in Australia.
I returned from studying abroad at the beginning of 2003. Nearly finished with my senior year of college, I fell ill. I was sick enough at the time to return home for two weeks and withdraw from the academic term. While my initial doctors’ visits showed no apparent cause for my illness, my doctor insisted I repeat the tests when I returned to Los Angeles. I can still vividly remember the day: the sun sinking low over the coastal hills, the air mild and faintly tinged with the smell of the ocean, the friends I stopped to speak to along the way, and the worried feeling in the pit of my stomach. This time, I tested positive for HIV. I had no idea how to proceed, and was so emotionally paralyzed by the result that I didn't seek treatment. My health got worse and worse.
Enter Dance Marathon. UCLA put on its first Dance Marathon (DM) in 2002, in a small ballroom in the residence halls. Soon, it grew into a major campus event. I began to hear from friends about this crazy fundraiser where students dance all night long to raise money to eliminate pediatric AIDS. Having finished my degree in December of 2004, one of my best friends insisted that I come and provide moral support for her at February's UCLA Dance Marathon. I grudgingly said yes, I would come at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday to dance with her for a couple hours. Instead, I stayed for the entire day. When I entered that ballroom, I could feel the pulsing energy in the room. There was power here, and in the feet and hearts of a few hundred dancing students. I found new hope that day. Hope that HIV/AIDS did not have to be the end for me or for others and that together, we could stop the disease. Because of that experience, I finally sought treatment.
I vowed to take a more active role in the fight to eliminate HIV. Dance Marathon at UCLA resonated with me not only because it was my home, but because I could not imagine a child feeling the way I had as a college senior when I tested positive. Regardless of my own future, it seemed imperative to me that no child should have to experience the shock, isolation, sadness, or fear that an HIV diagnosis can bring. I returned in 2006 to dance the full 26 hours with my friends still completing their degrees at UCLA, and I came back again in 2007, returning from graduate school in Florida to participate.
Somewhere along the way, I was connected with the leadership of UCLA DM, and was asked to speak. While I love to be on stage, I was nervous about sharing something so deeply personal. But I told myself that if I could open just one heart with my experiences, and show my collegiate community that anyone can be impacted by HIV, it was worth it. Coming off the stage to some of my best friends and finding myself in a group hug, all of us in tears, is a moment of support and release I will never forget, and one that I've endeavored to create for others.
After I began my professional career in New England, I was able to visit once or twice to see how Dance Marathon at UCLA was doing, but I also began to look for other ways to spread the word. Working in student affairs at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, I was surrounded by students passionate about service and making a difference. I watched, and waited for the right moment. In 2011, after posting a Facebook comment congratulating UCLA on their event, four students "liked" it. Within a week, I had talked them into sitting down with me to begin Dance Marathon at College of the Holy Cross. With me as their advisor, they became the first directors and ran with what seemed an impossible project for a tiny school of less than 3,000. And yet in January of 2012, with a board of 23 and more than 100 students willing to stay up and dance for twelve hours, Holy Cross Dance Marathon had its first all-nighter. Raising more than $26,000 in their first run, these students changed the face of activism at Holy Cross, not only initiating amazing outreach strategies not seen before on campus, but raising the awareness level of campus around HIV/AIDS a hundred-fold. Today, Holy Cross Dance Marathon is still going strong, with both the number of dancers and funds raised to eliminate pediatric AIDS increasing significantly.
Dance Marathons at college campuses around the United States inspire, amaze, and overjoy participants every year. They raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight a disease that we can beat. They gave me the hope and courage to stand strong and never give in to HIV. And they have opened eyes and hearts to what we can accomplish and what we have yet to overcome. Dance Marathon is one all-nighter you will never regret.
Inspire and unite your campus. Start a Dance Marathon at your school and be UP 4 THE FIGHT with us.