Students hop to help fight muscle disease, while learning core values of awareness, acceptance and assistance
Hopping isn’t just for bunnies.
Each year thousands of preschools, day care centers and elementary schools across the country are taken over by swarms of hopping students, all doing their part to help children with neuromuscular disease.
Endorsed by the National Child Care Association, MDA’s Hop-a-Thon is designed for children ages 2 through 7, but has been adapted for students up to age 11. It’s so named because children recruit family members, friends and neighbors to pledge a dollar amount for each hop they can complete in two minutes (or a flat amount for the whole time).
Since its inception in the 1980s, energetic hoppers have raised tens of millions of dollars for neuromuscular disease research and services like MDA summer camp for kids.
But Hop-a-Thon is more than just a fundraising program. It’s also a five-day disability awareness program that emphasizes three core values: awareness, acceptance and assistance.
"We take the material from MDA and talk with the children about how people are different," says Dawn Soukup, center director at Sandbox School of Early Care and Education in Orland Park, Ill. "Some people walk differently or speak differently, and it’s OK."
To get this message across, Hop-a-Thon materials (which are free to participating schools) include lesson plans, art projects, stories and activities that are geared to the understanding of young preschoolers, with a "fun factor" that draws in older students. Many teachers also create their own material and activities.
Games and activities teach about muscles — what they do, and what it’s like when you can’t use them. Stories and crafts help children identify some of the abilities and disabilities that make each of them unique. Classroom visitors (such as a young local MDA goodwill ambassador or an adult wheelchair user) offer an up-close look at mobility equipment and a chance to make friends.
As part of the daily lesson plan, the preschoolers practice hopping during the week leading up to the final hop event. (Elementary-age students sometimes substitute basketball throws or other activities for hopping.)
An important part of the program is emphasizing helping others, from simple acts of friendship, to improving wheelchair accessibility, to raising money to help fight muscle diseases.
Prior to the hop event, children bring home envelopes with information about MDA, and families begin gathering pledges for the child’s two-minute hop. Children usually hop 150 to 250 times in two minutes and older children can hop even faster.
Held in the school playground, gymnasium or classrooms, the final hopping event is always a fun and energetic affair, and also reinforces the values of awareness, acceptance and assistance.
Children are "happy that they can hop," Soukup said, adding, "We tell them that when they hop, they’re helping boys and girls whose legs don’t let them hop."
Students who aren’t able to hop, for whatever reason, participate in the event in other ways, such as keeping time, counting hops, directing the music or cheering on the hoppers. No one is left out.
At the end of the event, students are presented with "MDA Hopper" stickers, Hop certificates and small thank-you prizes.
The students seem to get a lot out of the Hop-a-Thon, says Soukup, who helped get all seven Sandbox preschools involved with the program.
The Sandbox schools hold their Hop-a-Thons in April during the Week of the Young Child. In 2011, the preschool and day care centers collectively raised more than $7,000.
"I think it’s really important to teach children that we’re here to help others," says Soukup. "Even though it’s the parents who are donating the money, in some small way we are planting seeds about sharing and trying to help our friend or our neighbor."
Some schools assign a theme to their Hop-a-Thon. For example, they may hold it around a holiday and rename it the "Bunny Hop," "Turkey Hop" or "Halloween Hop."
When Bronx Elementary School 93 started participating in the MDA Hop-a-Thon in 2009, the school’s assistant principal, Jacqueline LaRusso, was part of a group of creative teachers who decided on a ‘50s theme and turned the Hop-a-Thon into "The Hop."
The event is still going strong, raising more than $2,600 in 2011. The entire student body (pre-kindergarten through fifth grade) gathers together on the playground, which is decorated with an old-time jukebox, records and balloons. Students and faculty members dress in '50s attire, and students hop to the rock ‘n’ roll hit "At the Hop."
The students have so much fun that they ask about "The Hop" at the beginning of each year, even though the school doesn’t hold it until the spring, LaRusso says.
In 2011, when Abbey Umali was in sixth grade at Montessori in Redlands, Calif., her elementary school held a Hop-a-Thon in her honor, because she was both a graduating student and the MDA National Goodwill Ambassador at the time, says her former teacher, Margaretann Harrison.
As part of the event, Abbey visited each classroom and talked about muscular dystrophy and how hopping helps fund vital research. The school raised some $3,500.
"It was a great experience for kids to be able to help others," says Harrison.
Travis: I Got Lots of Neat Stuff is a treasured mainstay of MDA’s Hop-a-Thon program.
Written for very young children and illustrated with simple line drawings, Travis was created in 1995 by Kathy Gordon for her son, Travis Edward Gordon, to show to his kindergarten class. The story explains that Travis has muscular dystrophy (Duchenne) and displays his "neat stuff" — a ball, a teddy bear, a toy truck, leg braces and a wheelchair.
"After Travis was diagnosed, I went to our local library looking for a children’s book to help him understand his disability, but there wasn’t one," recalls Gordon. "So, I just sat down one night and drew up little figures, and wrote this story about Travis."
In addition to showing off Travis’ "stuff," the book explains "… my legs don’t work too well … And sometimes I even want to yell!" and "You don’t have to run and jump to play."
Throughout the years, many boys with DMD have said how much the book helped them while growing up.
More than 15 years later, the Travis book remains an important part of Hop-a-Thon materials. It recently was shortened and turned into a coloring and activity book.
Travis passed away due to heart complications in November 2011, just two months shy of his 21st birthday. He died at home with his family in Plantation, Fla.
A younger Travis also received a diagnosis of autism, but the condition improved as he got older. Always happy and accepting of his challenges, Travis had a great sense of humor and chose to see the good in everyone, Gordon says.
Travis’ loving personality was expressed through acts such as saving Mr. Puchi, an old toy poodle who was scheduled to be euthanized due to cataracts, a collapsed trachea and a leaky heart valve. Travis and the dog were inseparable.
A genius on the computer and GPS, he had a collection of 50 GPS devices ranging in ability. "He would be sitting in the living room but he would actually be taking drives in California on his GPS," Gordon says. "His mind was like a GPS map. People would call me and ask for directions, and he would give them step-by-step directions, from memory, including the exit numbers."
In 2011, Gordon and Travis published a second book for elementary school students titled I’m Not Sick, I Have a Handicap. It’s available on Amazon.com.
As smart as Travis was, says Gordon, his main goal in life was to make people understand that people with disabilities are just like everyone else.