'Standing for kids who can't': Fort Mill sisters - one here, one gone - grow a legacy.

Morgan Witherspoon and Clemson Miracle hosted a 12-hour dance marathon at Fike Recreation Center on Feb. 24 to raise funds for the local Children's Miracle Network hospital.
Morgan Witherspoon and Clemson Miracle hosted a 12-hour dance marathon at Fike Recreation Center on Feb. 24 to raise funds for the local Children's Miracle Network hospital. Student Affairs Publications

If the name sounds familiar, and the cause even more, there's a reason.

Morgan Witherspoon isn't on her first go-round.

Witherspoon, 21, is a junior engineering major at Clemson University. She also is executive director of Clemson Miracle, the school's largest student-run nonprofit. Clemson Miracle raises money — a lot of it — for Greenville Health System's Children's Hospital.

"It's easy for me to talk about, because I'm passionate," said the record-breaking funds-raiser from Fort Mill. "My family benefited from programs at the hospital. It's cool to be able to spread that love a little bit."

Last school year the group raised a record amount of money. This school year they beat that record, by raising almost $235,000. It's the most money from any single contribution to the hospital from a university organization. The total was an 86 percent jump from the previous high point a year earlier.

Clemson Miracle board member Ashley Miller began as a graduate adviser from 2013 to 2015. Miller estimates the group just a few years ago accounted for "$40,000 or so."

"The growth from last year to this year was awesome," Miller said. "And last year's total was unheard of at Clemson."

Witherspoon says the work is about far more than money.

"It definitely started when Jenna was diagnosed," Witherspoon said, referring to her late sister. "After she passed, our family continued to give back."

Jenna Witherspoon's story, more than a decade ago, touched the Fort Mill area. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004 and died two years later, at age 12.

Her legacy lives on.

There has been a kickball tournament and a spaghetti fundraiser. A former teacher named her daughter after Jenna.

Jenna inspired a rec league soccer teammate to score 10 goals, even though it took the part-time goalie six years to do it.

Doctors treated Jenna in a building beside what now is Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte. The young girl was able only to imagine what services and treatments the facility, then under construction, would offer children in need. Jenna's friends raised $50,000 after her death for a new hospital room at Levine, an 11th floor oncology unit painted in Jenna's favorite color, periwinkle.

Friends also collected money for a tribute page in what would have been Jenna's senior yearbook — a half dozen years after she died. When they collected more than what it cost, they gave the rest to Levine.

Then, Jenna's friends in recent years did the unthinkable. They brought together Clemson and the University of South Carolina. Witherspoon said she kept in touch with Jenna's friends from Gamecock country, which is how she found out about dance marathons.

"That's how I knew I wanted to be plugged in here at Clemson, to give back and continue her legacy," Witherspoon said.

Most of the recent hospital money from Clemson Miracle came from a dance marathon in February. Close to 500 students participated in the 12-hour, overnight event. Each one had to raise at least $100. Participants didn't sit or sleep during the marathon.

"You're standing for kids who can't," Witherspoon said. "You're standing to honor the kids who are in the hospital struggling."

Leading major events often gives Witherspoon a platform to talk about Jenna, who was two years older. The personal connection opens doors, and wallets.

"I got to tell her story," Witherspoon said of the recent donation. "It's a great way to keep her close."

Seeing her older sister's battle — her family's battle — impacted Witherspoon.

"It definitely shaped who I am, my passions and what I want to do with my life," Witherspoon said.

Witherspoon was named Miss Nation Ford High School in 2015. That pageant raised money and awareness for Make-A-Wish South Carolina, an organization that offers special events for children facing life-threatening medical conditions. Make-A-Wish made a Disney trip possible for the Witherspoons prior to Jenna's death.

Now it's Clemson's turn to reap the results of Witherspoon's passion. Clemson's chapter of Omicron Delta Kappa, a national leadership honor society, tabbed Clemson Miracle as its student organization of the year. Clemson Miracle also won the overall student organization of the year title this spring.

Witherspoon represented that group in Columbia on April 25 as Gov. Henry McMaster proclaimed "South Carolina Dance Marathon Day" in honor of college groups statewide that combined to raise millions of dollars for hospitals.

While Witherspoon's sense of giving may have grown up in Fort Mill, it's now reaching well beyond the town.

"The students are incredible and their hard work and determination will truly leave a legacy," said Jennifer Jameson, Chidren's Miracle Network manager at the Greenville children's hospital. "Countless patients and families will be impacted by their generosity."

Jenna was 12 when her fight with cancer ended 12 years ago. In a way it's been a lifetime ago for Witherspoon, but the experiences she had — good and bad — stay with her.

"I want people to see that even though we're young, we have the opportunity to do big things," Witherspoon said. "We are helping kids we don't know and may never meet."

Words that couldn't ring truer had Jenna and her sister spoken them together.

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