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THON changes lives, raises millions

Published on 21st February 2016

     The Penn State tradition of battling the number one disease killer of U.S. children continued this past weekend with #THON 2016 raking in $9.77 million, 708 dancers and thousands more student volunteers to combat childhood cancers in the area.
     "It is kids fighting for other kids," said Media Relations Captain Graceanne Domino.  "[The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon] speaks volumes of what it means to be human."
     THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world and has made its dent in fighting childhood cancer since 1973.  The movement that is planned and coordinated year-round, which then leads to the 48-hourlong event in February, has raised millions of dollars every year this century with the highest total coming from 2014's endeavors that reached $13.34 million.  In total over the years, Penn State students have raised over $136 million for the Four Diamonds organization at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center.
     Families suffering from pediatric cancer often cite emotional support as well as the funds raised for research and parents' medical bills as an important piece of THON to them.  The PSU Dance Marathon YouTube page highlights families affected by childhood cancer.  The Dustin Beaver family was a prime example of THON helping a young man and his family through their roughest time.  Beaver suffered from acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
     "Four Diamonds gives money, and they pay our medical bills.  But they give more than just a medical relief; they give an emotional [relief]," said Beaver's mom.  The family first attended THON in 2012, and they were amazed by the event and support of Penn State's student body.
     "It's the emotions.  It's that realization of this is what THON is," said Beaver's mom after attending the weekend and seeing the final number that was raised from the experience.  Beaver no longer suffers from cancer.
     This year, THON adopted the theme of "Believe Beyond Boundaries," and its logo was a rocket ship shooting upward, silhouetted by a field of stars.  Logo Designer Saige Sommese was inspired by space as she saw a common thread connecting the hopeful, inspiring history of space travel and the movement against childhood cancer where more Penn State students try to raise more funds and awareness every single year.
     "Space...seemed like such an impossible task, such an unknown, and it...now serves as a beacon of hope because we've been to space, which at one point seemed so impossible," said Sommese.  "I wanted this logo to serve as a visual beacon of hope breaking through those boundaries that these kids face in their everyday life fighting pediatric cancer."
     That beacon grew over an entire year into THON 2016 this past weekend on Feb. 19 through the 21 at the Bryce Jordan Center on Pennsylvania State University's main campus.  Pre-THON began on that Friday with entertainment and the hype reaching its zenith to kick off the 46-hour marathon of always dancing and never sleeping on behalf of the student volunteers.
     Thousands filled the center to watch, support and celebrate their college's movement while the 708 dancers in attendance never left the floor.  Senior mathematics major and THON dancer Brad Simmons is graduating in May and has worked with THON during every year of his secondary education at Penn State.  He finally had the opportunity to dance this year after his fraternity Sigma Pi raised money and chose him as one of their enthusiastic representatives for the dance floor.
     Simmons enjoyed dancing with his friends and the families they were supporting.  From making THON a priority to get involved with his freshman year to going to prom with a THON child, Simmons built up to this event as one of the culminating experiences of his senior year.
     "Because of my hard work and dedication, I was accepted to be a dancer," said Simmons.  According to the Teach for America member, passion is the third element that helped him be a THON dancer.  "It's the best way to wrap up college."
     Simmons gushed about the altruistic fun of THON; his favorite part was "just enjoying every second about being on the floor with some of my friends."  Simmons thought the center was a great experience for bonding and networking among friends and fellow THON supporters.
     "I love the energy in the Bryce Jordan," said Simmons.
     There are other dance marathons for charity in universities across the country, but none of them are as big as Penn State's THON.  Students will tell you that it is because THON is ingrained in the culture of the college, just as much as its football program and multiple campuses in the state are.
     "Nothing compares to the size and amount of money raised," said Simmons.  "THON just shows kids that there's more to college than just education."
     "It's up to you if you want to make THON a part of your organization," reported Simmons as most clubs on Penn State's campus contribute in some way.  "The world's a lot bigger than just yourself," reminded Simmons who thinks THON the ultimate definition of selfishness, a claim that is hard to refute with all the time and money students give to the cause.
     Simmons is also the College Republicans chairman on campus, and they too raised money for the fight against pediatric cancer.  "It's amazing how much money that we raise," mused Simmons.
     "The biggest impact THON has...it just gives people hope."
     Fellow dancer and sophomore Ellis Stump agrees with Simmons.  She represented the Student Council for the Schreyer Honors College and has been dreaming of dancing for THON for years.  Trained through a mini-THON at her old high school, Stump was ecstatic to be contributing to the weekend.
     "I wish I could describe it in words," said Stump of the infectious vibe of the dance marathon.  Stump, who was still going strong early Sunday morning, thought the experience was awesome, especially as she and her friends encouraged the other dancers and student volunteers.
     THON consists of mostly freestyle dancing, but the line dance performed by the Dance Relations committee throughout the weekend was a choreographed highlight pulling from popular music of the past few decades and a rousing Penn State cheer to kill cancer.
     From talking to a kid to dancing with a friend, Stump thought everything about THON was fun.  "I feel so surrounded by love," said Stump during the event.  "Everyone's there for the exact same reason."
     Each of the 708 dancers who earned the right to shred the floor over THON weekend was paired up with a child or THON committee member to keep their spirits up and make them feel appreciated.
     One of these student volunteers was Graceanne Domino, media relations captain and member of the Public Relations Committee.  Appointed in April of 2015, Domino went to work year-round securing media coverage, sharing press information and working with the media.  Everything went into overdrive when January hit.
     She directs the media where they need to go, and the media covering THON comes in all shapes and sizes from online blogs to cable news stations.  The Friday night pep rally is considered one of the weekend's highlights, and something between 40 and 60 news outlets were there to cover it and the weekend. 
     Penn State alumnus and Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Tackle Devon Still graced the event this year, bringing his daughter Leah along who recently just won a battle with childhood cancer.  The "For The Kids" (FTK) message resonated strong that evening and motivated student volunteers and dancers to continue in their mission throughout the weekend.
     The finale on Sunday lasts for four hours, and starting at noon on the 21, that was when the atmosphere in the Bryce Jordan Center was the most electric and exciting.  Dancers continued their relentless battle until the final total was revealed at the event's end at 4 p.m.
     Now that THON 2016 is over, planning will already begin for 2017's big weekend too.  This means people like Domino will be at it again, but no one seems to mind that either.  It is a part of the Penn State mentality.
     "It's a great opportunity to share THON values with the general public," said Domino about her job.  She reported a drastic increase in media coverage of THON from last year and was glad to help in the effort to share the story of THON around the world.
     Many volunteers testified to feeling sad the event ended.  Even though many of them are sleep-deprived, tired and sore, they focus on the success and think about the impact they are all making.
     "You get nostalgic about it," said Domino.
     Videographers for the THON event and movement also felt this way.  Public Outreach Captain Luke Wortman and his colleague Bennett Steber of GTcinematics were glad to have done their job, but the sentimentality of it all washed over them and most everyone after the event's conclusion on Sunday.
     The filming duo stumbled upon their start with THON by filming an unofficial video for THON 2015.  Now official volunteers, Wortman and Steber were obliged to create videos such as Committee of the Week spotlights, Road to THON 2016 and THON Family Focuses among other projects for the past year.
     "We have terabytes and terabytes of smiling faces," said Steber.  The pair has been filming THON-related events and features for public outreach for about a year, and they say the experiences never get old.
     "[We] really amp it up, promote the philanthropy," said Wortman.
     If this article only primed your appetite for all things THON, check out PSU Dance Marathon for all types of coverage.  Watch the THON 2016 Weekend Recap too.  You can consider donating to the cause as well because THON 2017 is only a year away!
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