Pediatric AIDS Coalition’s Dance Marathon Stands Up (and Dances) for Kids
by Larry Buhl

When I arrived at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, on the fifth hour of the 26-hour Pediatric AIDS Coalition (PAC) Dance Marathon in early April, the theme was ‘unleash your inner animal.” Many dancers were in animal onesies as a DJ played hip hop music that was heavy on bass and light on “thug” language.

All dancers must raise at least $260, but those who didn’t pull in that much could serve as “morale,” showing up for three-hour shifts. The themes changed regularly throughout the event. I cursed my luck that I would miss the square dancing and ABBA theme hours.

Kelsi Barbata, a UCLA sophomore in her second marathon, told me she has been talking up PAC and fundraising at her sorority, Kappa Alpha Tau–KAT, coincidentally she was dressed in a cat costume—and at other clubs she belongs to. “I want an AIDS-free generation,” she tells me.

UCLA senior Grant Garcia, perspiring in his, I think, flying squirrel onesie, told me his girlfriend got him involved in the organization and marathon. “Having PAC on campus is helpful in reducing stigma of HIV/AIDS” he says. “My buddies and I had a great time here last year, so I’m at it again,” he adds before running back to the dancing throngs on the floor of the immense pavillion.

The dance marathon is the flagship event of the Pediatric AIDS Coalition at UCLA, the largest student-run philanthropic organization on the west coast. Every year marathon dancers take a stand—literally, they’re on their feet for the whole time—against pediatric AIDS. Over its sixteen-year history, PAC raised nearly $5 million to benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF), the UCLA AIDS Institute, and Camp Kindle, a summer camp for kids affected by HIV/AIDS. This year’s marathon alone raised over $434,000.

There are 140 official members of the UCLA chapter of PAC, but the number of dancers far exceeds that every year, according to Kate Clendenen, its spokesperson.

“Kids [with HIV] come to us to get a reprieve from feeling estranged or cut off from their friends because of their status,” Clendenen tells me, shouting over the throbbing music.

Though it started as a dance marathon in 2002, stemming from a pitch from EGPAF’s then Director of College Engagement Joel Goldman, PAC has expanded to include direct service programs, including three day-long mentorship programs a year for kids and teens “affected by or infected with” HIV, and an annual retreat where teens can prepare for college, the job market and, generally, adult life.

“We don’t want kids to feel like their status is what defines them,” Clendenen adds. “We want them to recognize what’s possible.”

Jenna Vargas, the twelve-year-old who came out as HIV-positive very publicly in last year’s Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena was also on her feet the whole time and led an AIDS vigil—it was at 4 a.m. on Sunday, a little too early for this reporter. Vargas will be featured in the May issue of A&U.

For more information about PAC, log on to: www.pediatricaidscoalition.org.

Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.