THON raises record amount, has a hometown touch

Staff Writer
Echo Pilot
Ryan and Lisa Woods of Greencastle, and their children Moriah, 16, Lauren, 13, Michael, 11, Anna, 7, and Andrew, 4, spent the weekend at THON. Pictured are Moriah, left, dancer Annie Tamalavage, and Michael. Michael is celebrating five years of remission from Hodgkins lymphoma. The Four Diamonds Foundation, beneficiary of THON proceeds, picked up medical expenses not covered by insurance while Michael was in treatment.

THON, to the average citizen, is the dance marathon at Penn State every February that raises money for children with cancer. To the participants and recipients, it is so much more. A number of Greencastle young people were part of the 2012 Interfraternity/Panhellenic Dance Marathon Feb. 17 to 19 at Bryce Jordan Center in University Park. They saw again another fundraising record shattered, when the total of $10,686,924.83 was announced in the final ceremony at 4 p.m. Sunday. The 700 dancers had just completed 46 hours on the gym floor, months of planning by multiple committees had come to fruition, and the tallies of canning and other solicitations were compiled.

The latest total was a relief to THON supporters, who feared donations would be affected by the Jerry Sanduskey child sex abuse scandal. The death of longtime football coach Joe Paterno, who typically made an appearance at the event, was also heavy on people's minds. However, THON held its own, besting the 2011 total of $9,563,016.09, which also impressed the public by greatly surpassing the 2010 total of $7.8 million.

Proceeds from THON are channeled through the Four Diamonds Fund, a charity of Penn State Hershey Medical Center Children's Hospital, for research and financial assistance for pediatric cancer patients. Over 15,000 PSU students were involved in organizing THON and raising money over the past year.

They danced

Christine Ernharth, 21, a junior accounting major, was selected by her business fraternity, Phi Beta Lambda, to dance. The group was allotted four dancers based on the amount of money it raised. The THON slogan FTK (For The Kids) helped her define why she participated in canning weekends (standing on street corners collecting donations from motorists), sending out appeal letters, and encouraging her peers to get involved.

"For me, FTK means giving the children their childhood back. I hope and believe that through THON, through the Four Diamonds Foundation, these children can feel free, feel relaxed, feel loved, and for maybe only one weekend in the entire year, can be kids again."

Many of the children and their families attend THON, courtesy of the foundation. Specific events are created just for them. Ernharth also participated for Penn State as a whole.

"Our local community has been under the eye of so many in these past few months and only the negative light has been portrayed accurately. I wanted to make sure the rest of the world could see just a glimpse of what we actually can provide to others; why our school deserves to still be recognized as one of the top universities in the nation."

Beth Berger, 21, a senior kinesiology major, danced for PHETE, a health and physical education club. While a senior in high school, she watched her brother dance for THON. That lasting impression became her goal as well. She first participated in fundraising through the Mont Alto campus.

"This weekend was the toughest weekend of my life, physically and mentally, but it was the most rewarding experience I could ever imagine," she said. "Seeing all the children who you know are struggling with cancer every day, laughing with a loaded water gun in their hand, is the best feeling in the world."

The hugs from Four Diamonds families astounded her, as she realized how important THON really was to them. And though she hobbled around her apartment on Monday, she said she would participate again "in a heartbeat."

Sarah Jansen, 19, a freshman international relations major, entertained with her hip-hop dance group, RAM Squad. They performed choreography and freestyle in two shows over the weekend. The squad held many fundraisers during the year and adopted a THON family. They sent gifts, played with the children, and made sure they had a great time at the crowded event.

Though in her first year of college, Jansen got involved because "THON is Penn State." She benefited from the experience.

"Personally, I had the satisfaction of being part of something bigger than myself. It was fantastic to watch the school come together behind a great cause. The entire experience was exciting, gratifying, yet humbling, all at the same time."

They worked

The dance was only successful because of the work of many committees, before, during and after the event. Noel Fridgen, 22, a senior media studies major, served on the OPPerations committee. They set up at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, and tore down past midnight on Sunday. A major task was putting puzzle-piece mats on the gym floor for the dancers' comfort. They also organized storage areas, unloaded trucks, kept the bathrooms clean, and picked up trash and recyclables at the Bryce Jordan Center.

"One of the best parts about OPP is getting to see THON from start to finish — from the BJC being just a venue, to being the home of THON, and back again," she stated.

Fridgen found great satisfaction in the work because she saw children having a carefree weekend. She cried when the total fundraising effort was revealed.

"Nothing has been normal about this school year, except the power of THON. This year, more than any other, I realized that good truly does prevail."

Nicole Gentile, 22, a senior health policy and administration major, was on the board of the HPA Club. She cheered on the club's two dancers, visited them on the floor and helped to keep them energized. She interacted with Emily, their THON child, who at 12-years-old, has been cancer-free for three years.

"This THON, my last as a student, was especially emotional. I was able to experience a monumental weekend with some of the most inspiring people I know. THON is not something that stops as soon as you graduate; you cannot walk away forever from something as meaningful as THON. I know that this will not be my last."

It's personal

A Greencastle-Antrim High School sophomore has been attending THON since fifth grade. For Moriah Woods, 16, the eligibility to take part was thrust upon her family. Her brother Michael had been diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma at age 4. Hershey provided support through the Four Diamonds program. The family name was given to Earth and Mineral Sciences, an organization that participated in the dance marathon. And this year, for the second time, EMS raised the most money of any club.

"To see all those people come together for one cause and one goal really touches everyone," Moriah said. "One day I'm sure we will dance in celebration because childhood cancer will be cured."

She noted that another brother, Andrew, 4, sang on stage in front of the thousands of people, enjoying his moment as "little Justin Bieber."

The floor was packed with dancers and supporters, who were allowed to visit for a few hours with a special timed ticket. At capacity during the closing ceremony, the arena was filled with 16,000 visitors.