When Keigan Tillman returns to the University of South Florida's Marshall Student Center to serve as the DJ at the Sigma Delta Tau sorority's annual Putting On The Hits lip-synch battle on Sunday, the job represents more than just another gig for the successful music lover.
It's an event where a troubled past, a spirited present and a love-filled future all intersected three years ago at the popular lip-synch and dance competition, which expects to draw an overflow crowd of more than 3,000.
Tillman joined the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity in 2013. Not only did he DJ at the event that year, he joined his brothers as a performer at the competition, a leading philanthropic event at the university. Fierce rivalries, long nights of rehearsal, fancy costumes and decorative banners often highlight the show, now in its 27th year. Tillman helps his fraternity attempt to out-perform and out-fundraise other teams.
"I get way too involved," Tillman said, smiling. "There's a few groups that dominate. We always try to go out and do what we're good at and say we're going to win it. Even if you don't win both categories, you feel good that you went out there and did the work."
While he prepared with his frat brothers back in 2013, however, he also prepared for another performance on the stage: One that would involve real words, sincere moves and one unsuspecting sorority sister from Sigma Delta Tau.
Sigma Delta Tau spearheads the competition as a fundraiser for Prevent Child Abuse America, the national chapter's philanthropic choice. The organization works with volunteers on programs that teach families how to prevent shaken baby syndrome, sexual abuse, bullying and other issues.
The cause resonates with Tillman, who faced his own challenges growing up in an abusive home. He says his parents exhibited a total lack of responsibility.
"We were in and out of motel rooms, trailer parks, sometimes sleeping in cars; it was just a way of life for me," Tillman said. "I didn't see anything wrong with it at the time. We were surviving.
"All it did was teach me how to be strong," he added. "I know there's people who have it worse than I do."
After years of foster homes and staying with friends, he was adopted by a family with five other boys, whom he knew from his Boy Scout troop.
It was through the Boy Scouts that he first met Lizzie Myers, back in 2005, but they lost contact until he spotted a "cute girl" at a party in 2013.
They bonded instantly. Myers, a sister of Sigma Delta Tau, brought her new beau into USF's Greek life.
"I was anti-fraternity because of how they're portrayed in the movies," he said. "But it was just a bunch of normal kids having a good time."
At the lip-synch competition later that year, Myers was working behind the scenes when one of her sisters came up and insisted she immediately help carry some boxes. There wasn't even time, she said, to change into heels.
Downstairs, Tillman awaited on stage in the spotlight. On bended knee, he proposed. In a fancy dress and flip-flops, she said yes, her sisters exulting in the crowd.
"She hadn't planned to dress up, but I kept mentioning she should," Tillman recalled. "I had to have her sisters make her wear something appropriate, so she wouldn't be upset when she was proposed to while wearing a T-shirt or whatever tragic outfit she was gonna decide to wear."
He paused, grinning, and added, "We didn't win POTH that year, but everyone said we won anyway because of the engagement."
Tillman and Myers, who plan to wed in late 2017 or early 2018, look forward to Sunday's show and plan to be involved in Putting On The Hits for many years to come. It's as much about the proposal as it is about helping stem the tide of child abuse.
According to Prevent Child Abuse America, 90 percent of Americans believe that child abuse and neglect is a serious problem.
"I think it just hits home with a lot of people," Myers said. "It directly affects people, whether personally or with someone they know. You don't have to know someone who was abused to empathize with them."
Sigma Delta Tau raised $60,000 for Prevent Child Abuse America during last year's show; they're aiming for $65,000 this time. Fundraising efforts include encouraging USF students to donate, hosting "Give Back" nights at restaurants like Chipotle and Tijuana Flats at which a portion of sales go to the cause, bake sales and push-up challenges, and support from more than 20 local businesses.
Zach Hiner, Prevent Child Abuse America's director of communications, credits Sigma Delta Tau as one of the country's most influential champions of the fight against child abuse, and singles out the competition as a "can't miss" event.
"We're thrilled to have such a reliable group of women at USF who raise not only funds, but also awareness of prevention as a solution to child abuse and neglect," he said. "It's impossible to miss the charm and excitement of POTH."
Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected]