Road to THON Celebration honors volunteers, starts countdown to THON Weekend

Ryan Patrick, THON 2014 executive director, addresses attendees of the 2014 Road to THON Celebration dinner. Credit: Jill Shockey / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In less than three weeks, THON Weekend 2014 will commence at Penn State, and more than 700 dancers will stand for 46 hours in the Bryce Jordan Center. As part of its annual countdown, and to honor extraordinary volunteer contributions, hundreds of THON volunteers gathered Thursday (Jan. 30) for its annual Road to THON Celebration dinner at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel.

The event brings together key student volunteers, University liaisons, community and corporate partners and friends of THON -- just a fraction of the 15,000 Penn State students University-wide and thousands more supporters across the Commonwealth who offer their time, in-kind resources and financial donations to help children, families and their medical teams fight pediatric cancer.

The evening celebration began with good news. “During fiscal year 2013, THON was able to donate 95.89 percent of its total funds raised, or $12.4 million, directly to The Four Diamonds Fund,” Jessica Steciw, THON special events director, said.

The Diamonds of Courage, Honesty, Wisdom and Strength -- based on the story "Sir Millard and The Four Diamonds" by Christopher Millard -- are a few of the awards given to outstanding volunteers during the Road to THON Celebration. Millard died of pediatric cancer, and in 1972 in his memory, his parents, Charles and Irma Millard, established the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Several annual Four Diamonds-themed THON awards were given to exceptional student, University employee and other volunteers for their contributions to THON:

-- Chelsea Pierce, who oversees family meals as part of THON 2014’s hospitality committee, received the Diamond of Courage Award;-- Ned Brokloff, a Penn State alumnus and Penn State Engineering Alumni Society board member, was honored with the Diamond of Wisdom Award;-- Alex Radkoff, executive chair of Ohana, a THON special interest organization, was awarded the Diamond of Honesty;-- Kayla Nakonechni, a Penn State student who danced independently in THON 2013 and in August 2013 was diagnosed with a stage four malignant brain tumor, was recognized with the Diamond of Strength;-- Frank Pope, events parking coordinator with Penn State’s Transportation Services, was honored with the Four Diamonds Award;-- Brad Wagner, HUB facilities supervisor, was awarded the Kevin A. Steinberg Memorial Award;-- Kathryn Hartigan, a Penn State Altoona THON 2013 dancer and soccer team captain, received the Courtney O’Bryan Volunteer Award;-- Steven Patrick, a Schreyer Honors College senior and Atlas special interest organization dancer in THON 2013, was honored with the Rick Fund Scholarship Award.

The evening’s keynote speaker offered a highly personal perspective. Lauren Schildt Libhart, a 2012 Penn State graduate who now is a Penn State Hershey registered nurse, is also a Four Diamonds child. She shared her personal story about pediatric cancer, beginning with her 1999 diagnosis of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), a rare form of leukemia, at 8 years old.

Schildt Libhart thanked the crowd, saying that she didn’t know where she would be today “if it wasn’t for all of your hard work and dedication to children like me.”

During the Schildt family's first visit to Penn State Hershey Medical Center, they were introduced both to their dedicated social worker, provided through the Four Diamonds Fund, and to the Penn State Dance Marathon. In February 2000, about six months after her final chemotherapy treatment, Schildt Libhart attended her first THON.

“I was such in awe of all the college students helping out kids like me,” she said, adding, “By the end of the weekend I was running around and enjoying every moment.” Eight months later, following a year of a recently developed treatment of cancer therapy using retinoic acid capsules, she was declared in remission.

In the years following her cancer, Schildt Libhart realized she wanted to help others in her career. She attended Penn State Altoona and immediately began her involvement with THON as a student volunteer.

“My senior year at Penn State, one of my ultimate dreams came true when I danced in THON 2012,” she said. She danced independently in honor of two Four Diamonds families, with whom she still keeps in contact. One of the girls has been in remission for more than four years, while the other relapsed in fall 2013 and recently recovered from a bone marrow transplant.

Following her graduation from Penn State with a nursing degree in May 2012, Schildt Libhart married her high school sweetheart and now works as a registered nurse at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. "Because of you, I was able to do something positive with my life," she said.

The 42nd annual Penn State Dance Marathon, better known as THON, will commence 46 hours of a no-sitting, no-sleeping weekend to celebrate the lives of children and families affected by pediatric cancer at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, at the Bryce Jordan Center on the University Park campus.

Last Updated May 18, 2015