Students skydive with teddy bears to support children living with illness

Indiana University Dance Marathon skydive

Indiana University Dance Marathon member Chris Johnson skydives in support of Riley Children’s Foundation. Photo: IUDM

More than 100 students from Indiana University went skydiving with teddy bears strapped to their chests on Saturday, and they did it for a good cause: to help support the children living with illnesses at the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis:

The students are all members of Indiana University Dance Marathon (IUDM), a philanthropic organization at the university that supports everything “for the kids,” or “FTK,” the organization’s motto. IUDM, in collaboration with Canopies for Kids, organized a skydiving event sending students into the air with teddy bears to be donated to Riley Hospital.

“I'm so terrified of heights, and I never thought in a million years I would go skydiving,” Indiana University senior and event organizer Sarah Guistolisi told GrindTV. “But after talking to Canopies for Kids, I figured what the hell, there will never be a better time to do it then while doing it for a good cause.”

IUDM is the second-largest student charity organization in the country. Since its creation 25 years ago, the organization has raised more than $20 million for children being treated at Riley Hospital through their annual 36-hour dance marathon each fall (the event last year drew 3,500 participants). Canopies for Kids is a nonprofit that sends teddy bears jumping out of airplanes with skydivers before labeling them the “bravest bears in the world” and donating the bears and a monetary contribution to a sick child in a hospital.

Indiana University Dance Marathon skydive

Members of IUDM prepare to jump out of planes with the “bravest bears in the world” in tow. Photo: IUDM

“We have a group of kids at Riley we pair one on one with members of the IUDM community,” said Guistolisi. “Currently we are paired with 87 kids from Riley and our goal is to provide a support system and help them build their confidence while giving them a place where they can focus on being kids rather than being sick.

"When we knew we could help donate the bravest bears in the world to the bravest kids in the world, we jumped at the chance.”

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So IUDM members fell from 13,000 feet this weekend with teddy bears strapped to their chests and an inspirational passage written on their palms.

“I was scared to jump until I looked down at my hands and saw ‘FTK,'” said Guistolisi. “I understood in that moment what I was about to do was nothing like what the Riley kids go through every day. Even though it will never compare to what they face, this whole experience was a way for us to connect with the bravery shown every day by children living with illnesses.”

And so Guistolisi jumped with the teddy bears that they will present, along with a handwritten support letter, to Riley children at this fall’s dance marathon in the hopes that the bears will be able help keep spirits high among the children at Riley.

“We just want the kids to feel like every time they hug the bear, they’re hugging everyone at IUDM,” said Guistolisi.

Indiana University Dance Marathon skydive

At the 36-hour annual dance marathon, IUDM participants get to interact with children fighting illness at Riley Hospital. Photo: IUDM

Prior to jumping, many members of IUDM told the children they were paired with at Riley what they were doing, and were overwhelmed with the response.

“One of our affiliated kids, named Mikey, wanted to join us in the jump, but wasn’t healthy enough just yet,” said Guistolisi. “But this was only our first year doing it. We hope in the future he and other kids that get through Riley will be able to jump with us.”

Along with the presentation of the teddy bears, a video will be shown to the Riley children at this year’s dance marathon explaining why they jumped out of an airplane and what the teddy bears mean to them.

“Afterward, I’m sure every kid will be asking their parents if they can jump out of an airplane,” Guistolisi joked. “I’m not so sure how happy the parents will be about that, but we think they’ll like it.”

And as for whether or not she will jump again? Well, it would seem Guistolisi has beaten her fear of heights.

“After doing it once, I wish I could dive every day,” she said. “It was the most exhilarating experience of my life.”

Donate to the Indiana University Dance Marathon online.

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