UNIVERSITY PARK - THON, Penn State University's annual cancer research mega-fundraiser, supported Ashley Akright's family for 14 years.
Now a Penn State senior, Akright has spent the past four years returning the favor.
Among thousands of supporters and 700 marathon dancers, the Hershey woman was one of 15,000 student volunteers at the Bryce Jordan Center this weekend for the 46-hour event - an annual fundraiser for the Four Diamonds Fund effort supporting pediatric cancer care and research.
(Mirror photo by Teri Enciso Albarano)
Freshmen and sorority members Leah Emanuele of Pittsburgh (left), Bari Peyser of Old Bridge, N.J., and Alana Feldman of Mountainside, N.J., dance in the crowd Saturday during THON at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Dubbed by supporters as the world's largest student-run philanthropy, organizers say the effort has raised $52 million since 1973, helping thousands of families pay for cancer-related medical bills along the way.
On Saturday, Penn State students were doing it again - cheering and dancing to Top 40 hits and Disney songs, while children ran around them shooting squirt guns, working at activity booths and tossing bean bags.
In 1992, Akright and her then-7-year-old brother Nickolas were surrounded by a similar scene.
Supported by THON and fellow cancer-fighting families they met there, Nickolas was pronounced brain cancer free in the years that followed, Akright said, but aggressive chemotherapy regiments took their toll, leaving him to battle bipolar disorder for years before he took his life at 19.
"There are so many families here going through so many things," the Penn State senior said, assured the millions of dollars raised annually at the event will save young lives in the years to come - and fuel continued research for better cancer treatment.
"It's not just about remission ... to me, it's about better cures - raising money to find the right cures," she said.
Andrew Batton, 22, also a Penn State senior, helped raise funds for the event in years prior.
But this weekend was his first chance to hit the dance floor.
"This is the best experience of my life," said Batton, proudly showing off a photo button of 7-year-old Katie, a cancer survivor that Beta Alpha Psi and Penn State's Accounting Society helped sponsor. "It really opens up your eyes, that there's a lot more out there than just yourself to think about."
"It's something I'll always remember," said another dancer, Meghan Maiette, 20.
The Penn State junior and her friends spent four months fundraising their way to the event, collecting $14,150.
Saturday evening, she was relying on friends to keep her going again, she joked, noting she had been on her feet for nearly 24 hours.
"But it's been so much fun," she said, smiling. "Every time you start getting tired, you see people in the stands cheering you on, when you know there's other places they could be on a Saturday night.
"I've had kids tell me they look forward to it all year. It makes it all worth it."