It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 11 years since 8-year-old Marlie Kai Dodson passed away from a brain tumor, says her mother, Sarah Dodson ’01.
The grief from losing Marlie can sometimes make the passage of time irrelevant, Dodson admits.
“Life is not ever going to be exactly what we wanted,” Dodson says. “But I’ve come to accept that we will be provided for in other ways. I would rather have Marlie here with me right now, but I know the Lord gives me moments like this where I have an opportunity to share and talk about her.”
Because of her daughter’s unforgettable spirit, Dodson was moved to establish two scholarships for UCF students – The In Memory of Marlie Kai Dodson Endowed UCF Oncology Nursing School Scholarship and the Marlie Kai Spirit Scholarship. The former scholarship honors students who aspire to help children like Marlie, while the latter provides education support for the student-athletes who were such a big part of Marlie’s short life.
Marlie’s love of all things UCF was, perhaps, a foregone conclusion, Dodson says.
Born in the middle of football season, Marlie got to celebrate her birthdays the best way possible – tailgating at a UCF home game.
“It wasn’t every birthday, of course,” Dodson says. “But there were enough football-related celebrations that she began to associate black-and-gold with good times.”
The Dodson Knights include April Agnew ’97, Robert Agnew ’99, Jennifer Agnew ’94, Rebecca Dodson ’11, Kaitlynn Dodson and Ethan Dodson (current students) — cousins, aunts, uncles and a brother-in-law who are current UCF students or alumni. This was also supposed to be Marlie’s destiny.
“She would have been going to UCF this year,” Dodson says.
It was something the close duo had often discussed. Marlie had an affinity for the energetic UCF cheerleaders, who came to recognize her and her mother. They were always smiling and happy, Dodson says. No matter how Marlie was feeling, seeing the cheerleaders always made her feel better.
When Marlie was diagnosed with a Stage III pineoblastoma in the summer of 2007, she associated the UCF logo and colors that the student nurses wore during their clinical rotation at Arnold Palmer with the friendly cheerleaders.
“Knowing that these nurses were part of the same family that she visited for sporting events and tailgating really increased her comfort level,” Dodson says. “So even at 3 years old, she felt that UCF had really embraced her and embraced her cancer.”
One of Marlie’s goals as a student at UCF would be to become a cheerleading nurse, Dodson says.
“I encouraged her, of course, but later I found out that that was probably not really a thing – both cheerleading and nursing are extremely rigorous activities. But in my heart, I really did think that Marlie could be the very first cheerleading nurse.”
Dodson says the nurses who cared for her daughter also taught her how to care for Marlie at home.
“I knew how to be a mom,” Dodson says. “I was a teacher and knew how to be an educator – Marlie could read and tell time and she knew her address. But I did not know how to give shots. I did not know there were different types of needles, and I did not know there were medicines I could give to Marlie when she had nausea to help her feel better. Marlie could also feel that love and passion that the nurses felt for her, and it just never really left her young little soul.”
Marlie continued her own brand of cheerleading and nursing through her service to the Orlando community. She was the Honorary Grand Marshall for the 2008 Citrus Bowl Parade, a Junior Ambassador at Base Camp of Orlando, a model for Runway to Hope from 2010 to 2011, a member of Brownie Troop #1741, and a spokesperson for many other local charities.
Her death in 2011 left a great void not only in her mother’s life, but in the lives of all who had met the remarkable child. Dodson knew, however, that Marlie still had lessons to share.
Dodson and her family were inspired to create two scholarships to honor Marlie’s legacy: one for UCF cheerleaders, and one for nursing students who plan to focus on pediatric oncology.
“During Marlie’s illness, cheerleaders and nurses had the biggest effect on her quality of life,” Dodson says. “With these scholarships, we want them to be aware of the effect they have on a child, and how they not only have to stay strong in the midst of a crisis, but they are also a source of strength for people like Marlie and me, who look to them for guidance.”
At one football game, Marlie was invited down to the field where she got to cheer with the Knight cheerleaders, Dodson says. “We knew that she would be passing away soon, and it was so incredibly moving not only for me, but to see Marlie realize one of her dreams. She even got to flip the coin for the start of the homecoming game.”
So far, four UCF student-athletes and 10 UCF nurses have benefited from Marlie’s scholarships. Dodson meets with as many of the students as she can, drawing strength from sharing Marlie’s story.
“I tell the cheerleaders what an awesome job they have – to keep showing their spirit even though the scoreboard may be telling a different story,” Dodson says.
“When the Marlie Kai Spirit Scholarship is awarded each year, Sara Dodson and her family come out to campus and they share the story of Marlie Kai’s life,” says Linda Gooch ’85, Head Coach of UCF’s Spirit Program. “They talk about her relationship with our UCF Cheer Team and the impact that those moments had on her as she battled cancer. It is an incredibly impactful visit and as much as our cheerleaders meant to Marlie, the impact that her legacy has had on our program has been 10 fold.”
Awarding this scholarship each year is a reminder of what is really important. It is a reminder to each of us that every day we have the opportunity to make a positive difference in someone’s life and sometimes it is with something as simple as a smile, a greeting or a kind word. Sarah and I talk each year about the qualities that we are looking for in this recipient. Although each of the 4 students have come from different backgrounds and different majors, they all have a common thread in that they are team members who are never too busy to stop on the way into the stadium to take a photo or visit with a child. It is not something that we had to teach them, they are simply committed to creating memorable moments for our littlest UCF fans. — Linda Gooch
A few years after Marlie’s death, Dodson began delivering love and intentional acts of kindness to families who might need a little cheer in their own lives.
“Marlie continues to inspire me to keep cheering the little moments,” Dodson says.
Dodson created #MarlieMade, a movement that she and her family deploy when they sponsor and deliver meals to Ronald McDonald House, or give to fund nonprofit cancer research, or when they mentor new families as they journey through their child’s diagnosis.
Recently, Dodson got a letter from a girl who had been in Marlie’s preschool class.
“It’s just a full letter about the impact that Marlie had on her decision every day to stay in this world and to fight through any of her depression and pain because she knew how valuable life was,” Dodson says. “And after I read it, I realized that Marlie literally saved her life. And I know that there are many stories like that where Marlie inspired someone. I still get letters from people who share their memories of Marlie.”
As she looks back on her life since Marlie passed away, Dodson reflected on the passage of time.
“I want people to know that we all experience tragedies and that we can all get through them,” Dodson says. “It’s OK to struggle, and it’s OK to ask for help. I believe we were all put here to help each other, and my family and I are grateful for the opportunity to help students through the scholarships that our wonderful Marlie Kai Dodson inspired.”
To support, please visit foundation.ucf.edu/marliekai or foundation.ucf.edu/marliekaicheer
-Written by Camille Dolan ’98