UNIVERSITY PARK - Since its inception in 1973, the Penn State Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, commonly referred to as THON, has united Penn State students past and present to help raise money and awareness in hopes of combating the effects of pediatric cancer.
"Personally I'm lucky because I've never lost a loved one to pediatric cancer, but in life I feel like I was put here today to help people and inspire people," said Kim Sterner, a Penn State Altoona student and first-time dancer.
THON is widely considered the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, with the Penn State student body raising a record $10,686,924 last year.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Jarrett Kern, 4, of Harrisburg dances for his mother, who has been in remission for 22 years, Saturday at Penn State’s THON?dance marathon in State College.
Any monies accrued during the calendar year by THON members are donated to the Four Diamonds Fund - a charitable organization established in 1972 by Charles and Irma Millard in connection with the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
"We've been coming to THON since 1999, and they gave us so much emotional support that it feels like it's good to give back to other families because THON gave us so much," said sophomore Maura Petrulsky, a Penn State Altoona THON dancer whose sister is a Four Diamonds child.
The culmination of this fundraising event occurs every February as Penn State students from across the commonwealth gather for THON Weekend at the Bryce Jordan Center.
This year's event kicked off at 4:30 p.m. Friday with students, alumni, Four Diamonds children and their families filling the arena to its capacity.
"The amount of work that's put into this is just awesome," said John Fulton, whose son, Nicholas, is a Four Diamonds child.
"These students do this all year long for families they've never even met, and it's just very humbling," added Nicholas' mother, Traci.
The Fultons of Elliottsburg had heard of THON, but after Nicholas was diagnosed with pediatric cancer last May, one of the first things Nicholas' physician did was tell them about THON.
"When his physician gave us the diagnosis, we said we would be here dancing at THON this year," said Traci, while her son playfully doused dancers with a squirt gun. "That's what we've been striving for is to get to this point."
Nicholas was an active participant in the festivities, at one point getting on stage during the fashion show and striking the familiar Heisman pose for the crowd of dancing students.
Those involved in the dance marathon are in for an endurance test, as they are required to stay on their feet for the entire 46 hours of THON weekend - excluding time for the bathroom or to change sneakers.
"I did a lot of leg workouts and a lot of things to prepare my back because this is a very taxing weekend," said Penn State Altoona sophomore Richard Kopecky, who is one of 710 Penn State student dancers. "I exercised roughly three hours a day strengthening my legs, back and core."
Student dancers, clad in multi-colored attire, headbands and sometimes costumes, are positioned on the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center, often performing line dances that unite the entire arena in synchronized movements.
Spectators in the stands are not allowed to sit, so they move up and down, wave signs and become as much a part of the dancing action as those down on the floor.
The various dances and activities performed by the students signify a count down to "The Final Four Hours," of THON Weekend - occurring this afternoon - during which time the total amount of money raised is revealed.
Last year's total was a record $10.69 million.
For live streaming video of the remaining hours of THON Weekend, visit www.thon.org.