O'Connell students to dance for Walter

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In 1975, Maura O'Donnell, a student at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, came up with the idea for Superdance, a 12-hour dance marathon to raise money to help find a cure for cystic fibrosis. Maura's sister, Brenda, had passed away earlier that year from this chronic disease, and she knew the school community wanted to do something to help. Forty-one years and more than $4 million in fundraising later, O'Connell students still carry on this tradition to raise funds and awareness to help find a cure.

Superdance will take place March 5, but earlier this month student organizers kicked off the Superdance season with an assembly that featured speakers, skits and music to educate and inspire the student body to rally behind the cause.

Among the many heartfelt presentations at this year's assembly, one hit particularly close to home for the students. Senior Walter Whitt took the stage to explain his day-to-day life growing up with cystic fibrosis. On the screen behind him were photos of him, some as a young boy and others as the teenager he is today. The photo collection included images of him undergoing treatments at home or recovering in a hospital bed.

"Having cystic fibrosis really makes me want to make the most of the time that I have and just experience as much as possible," said Whitt. "Unlike most people, I may not have 60, 70, or 80 years."

To his classmates, Whitt is a humble and disciplined young man who exhibits an intense curiosity for new experiences and knowledge. In addition to excelling in the classroom, he completed a six-week summer internship in Germany where he led a marketing effort aimed at raising awareness of cystic fibrosis in North America. Whitt enthusiastically soaks up his spare time with several hobbies, including building computers and model cars.

Whitt thinks more about good health habits than most high school students do. "Especially senior year with college applications, managing my time hasn't been the easiest," he said. "I've had to accept that my daily treatments and inhaler sessions are things I have to do, kind of like eating dinner or eating breakfast." He wakes up each morning at 5:45 a.m. in order to complete his daily regimen, something that he accepted years ago is just a part of his routine.

In this busy schedule, what does Superdance mean to him?

"It really means hope," said Whitt. "It means looking toward the future and knowing that all the money we are raising and all the awareness are all going towards research that will make a difference in my lifetime … for new medications, new treatments and new ways to not have to wake up at 5:45 a.m."

"The enthusiasm for Superdance has reached levels far beyond what we've experienced in the recent past," said Cheri O'Reilly, student council association moderator. "During the assembly, the entire student body stood and applauded Walter before he even began his speech."

This year's Superdance slogan is a play on the Star Wars line: "May the CURE be with you," but the unofficial theme on social media has been #DoItForWalter.

"The times that Walter misses meetings because he is sick is especially rough on the committee, but it only fuels their enthusiasm to work harder," said O'Reilly. "It is so affirming of God's presence to witness our students come together in support of each other. They believe they will make a difference; what they do not realize, is that they already have."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016