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A Family Affair at Penn State’s THON

Joy and sadness, agony and ecstasy, tears and smiles, booming noise and total silence, body-numbing pain and incredible relief.

(L-R) Brandon, Alex, Jane and Kevin Williams at THON
(L-R) Brandon, Alex, Jane and Kevin Williams at THON (Townsquare Media NJ)

I experienced it all this weekend at a love-fest that is called THON. That’s the name of Penn State University’s annual 46-hour dance marathon to raise money in the battle against pediatric cancer by supporting the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.

By now you may have read or heard that a record $13.3 million was raised in the most recent effort of what is the largest student run philanthropy in the world. I knew about THON before this weekend but now I’ve experienced it and it truly falls under the category of “words don’t do it justice.” But I’ll try.

My daughter Alex is a senior and through her sorority Kappa Delta has been involved in THON for all four of her years at Penn State. The backbone of the event is fraternities and sororities who raise money through a variety of fundraisers. They are joined by other student-run organizations that not only raise money but “adopt” children who are part of the Four Diamond Fund, which provides financial and emotional assistance for families dealing with cancer as well as care and innovative research at Hershey Medical Center.

The 42nd annual dance marathon begin Friday at 6pm with over 700 dancers, including Alex and two of her roommates Maddy and Nicole. Just getting selected to dance is a highlight for seniors at Penn State but what makes the event truly amazing is they were supported all weekend long by thousands of students who packed the Bryce Jordan Center dressed in crazy and colorful outfits and stood in sections by organizations.

During much of the 46 hours that they remained standing and moving to the beat of up-tempo music the dancers saw a building filled with 16,000 people and many others trying to get inside. By the way some 15,000 students volunteer for everything from boosting morale to cleaning the floor; it seems like just about everyone on campus plays a role.

This year’s THON was a family affair for Jane and me. Our son Brandon (Class of 2008 at PSU), on his way back from the Winter Olympics in Sochi flew in to State College and surprised Alex who broke down in tears when she saw him. The three of us spent 32 of the 46 hours in the BJC, including the final 24 without sitting or sleeping. The pain in my lower back was at times brutal and as the saying goes “my dogs were barking.”

However in the final hours when you hear stories of those who are now cancer-free and those who did not survive you feel guilty about complaining because your back hurts. Finally at 4pm Sunday we got to sit as the record total was revealed. Students embraced on the floor and in the stands as they beat last year’s record total by nearly a million dollars and we all slept rather well that night.

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