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Dancing for a cause: Sayre student continues family legacy of service with first-ever dance marathon

Barb Milosch

Jack Backer comes from a long line of philanthropists and volunteers. His grandfather, John Benton “Bubba” Woodfin, a fourth-generation owner of Woodfin Funeral Chapels in Murfreesboro and Smyrna, Tennessee, was beloved for his community involvement, baking cornbread for client families, hosting fish fries for charities, and giving generously to high school bands, hospitals, and a local university.

Jack’s parents are equally service-minded. John Backer (’83) has served on the Sayre Board of Trustees as a member of the school’s Finance Committee. He and his wife Ashley also headed up fundraising for the Sayre Spectacular for several years, helping the school raise hundreds of thousands in donations annually.

Now it’s Jack’s turn to give back to the community. As a member of the executive committee of Sayre’s National Honor Society chapter, Jack is working with other executive committee members – all seniors – along with three NHS juniors, on the first-ever DanceBlue Mini-Marathon at the school.

While their classmates spin, sway, jump and glide to a playlist spanning rock, country, disco and more, Jack and his teammates will be working on the sidelines to ensure their endeavors pay off.

“Every other school in Lexington has had a dance marathon,” says Jack, a third-generation Sayre student and NHS treasurer. “We wanted to see if we could start a tradition at Sayre.”

A Bluegrass Country tradition

The DanceBlue Marathon is a two decades-old fundraising juggernaut in Lexington. Launched in the early 2000s at the University of Kentucky, the entirely student-run DanceBlue organization conducts fundraisers year-round for pediatric hematology and oncology services at Kentucky Children's Hospital, as well as cancer research at UK Markey Cancer Center.

The fundraising year culminates each spring in a 24-hour, no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon. To date, DanceBlue has raised more than $20 million in the fight against pediatric cancer through its own events as well as mini marathons conducted at Lexington area schools.

“It’s a great cause, and certainly one that people feel connected to. Everybody knows somebody who has gone through this,” Jack says. In fact, Jack’s grandmother on his dad’s side – Julia Cowgill, a long-time Sayre supporter and proud Sayre mom – died of lung cancer.

Putting their skills to the test

On March 23, the committee’s fundraising and organizing skills will be on display as their classmates bust out their best dance moves. It’s a heavy lift for the organizers, who are accustomed to doing group projects but not large-scale events of this size – not to mention the many other obligations on their time, including rigorous coursework and other extracurriculars.

Yet while there’s still a lot of planning and door-knocking to do, Jack is optimistic about the outcome.

“Our goal is $15,000, which I think is pretty attainable. Appalachian Regional Healthcare has offered to be our presenting sponsor at $5,000,” Jack says. “The biggest way we’ll get money is to just to call up businesses, call up people we know who want to support us, to give $250, $500 donations.”

And if they meet that goal? “It would mean that we have not only succeeded in what we have done this year, but we have also started a foundation so that next year’s National Honor Society could maybe go for $20,000, and the next year $25,000,” he adds.

Confidence born of experience

Jack’s confidence rests not only in his family’s history of successful fundraising but also in his own early career training. Since the age of 10, during every visit to his mother’s hometown of Murfreesboro, he’s been shadowing family members in the funeral business.

“It started with me greeting people at the front door, and now I do just about everything that a licensed funeral director and embalmer does,” says Jack, who’s pictured in a dark navy suit and azure tie on Woodfin’s website as an unlicensed funeral assistant. He’ll soon be pursuing a license in life insurance for funeral pre-planning, followed by four years studying business or accounting, and then two years studying mortuary science.

While still knee-deep in organizing the DanceBlue Marathon, Jack is already gaining some insights. “I have certainly learned what my skill set is, and what everybody else’s skill sets are,” he says. Some of his teammates are adept at logistics and others with technical work like web development, while Jack’s strengths lie in managing corporate sponsorships.

With his sights set on the family business, those marketing skills should bode well for Jack long after the streamers are swept from the gymnasium floor and he’s tossed his graduation cap into the air this spring.

Event details

Tickets for the mini dance marathon cost $50 and include a t-shirt and wrist band for event entry. Students will attend the event in intervals, with dedicated times for the lower, middle, and upper schools.

More details will be available closer to the event. Visit for more information and updates.