Penn State Intercom......February 13, 2003

For the kids: Students dedicated
to fighting childhood cancer

THON by the numbers

By Courtney Beisel
and Amy Neil

Public Information

initialcapt's not unusual for Penn State students to be up 24 hours straight -- hanging out with friends, writing last-minute papers for extra credit or cramming for the test that slipped their minds. But what could possibly make them stay up for 48 consecutive hours?

Kids. Specifically, kids with cancer.

For the last 31 years, Penn State students have fought childhood cancer through the magic of the largest student-run philanthropic organization in the world. This year's THON, themed "Hope Surrounds Us," will be held Feb. 21-23 on the University Park campus.

thon02_11The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, more widely known as THON, is a 48- hour, no-sitting, no-sleeping fund-raising event that benefits The Four Diamonds Fund and involves 700 dancers and more than 3,000 student volunteers. Last year, more than $3.6 million was raised, totaling more than $25 million contributed to the fund.

Penn State students founded THON in 1973 with the purpose of raising money for charity. The 30-hour competition, with 39 participating couples, raised more than $2,000, which was donated to the Sheltered Workshop for Retarded Children in Butler. The first dance marathon exceeded all expectations and immediately became an annual event, with organizations such as the American Heart Association and Easter Seals benefiting from its efforts.

thon02_06In 1977, a new charity was adopted by THON -- The Four Diamonds Fund. Established with the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and Penn State Children's Hospital, the fund is committed to conquering childhood cancer by assisting children and their families though superior care, support and research.

Approximately 87 percent of the fund's income is derived from the fund-raising efforts of THON. Money contributed to the fund is distributed to help families pay for costs not covered by insurance policies; cancer research; and other unexpected expenses, such as travel costs and lodging. The fund also offers various programs to provide support for families, including parent and sibling support groups and cancer survivor days.

John E. Neely, chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at Children's Hospital and a professor in the College of Medicine, came to the hospital in 1985 because of the prospect the program held.

"The building opportunities with The Four Diamonds Fund and THON were boundless," he said. "I wanted to develop a program with the reputation of excellence regarding the treatment of childhood cancer."

The medical practitioners at Children's Hospital are committed to treating the children as a whole, not just the cancer. Playrooms and lounges have been set up with everything from computers, video games and movies to toys, books and music. Children also are encouraged to learn and understand their diagnosis and treatment.

"The more they understand, the more empowered they are to work through the disease," explained Deb Shade, a pediatric oncologist nurse specialist at Children's Hospital.

Many students spend all year anticipating the 48 hours of dancing, compassion and hope. THON, however, is more than a dance marathon: It's a staple of the Penn State environment. Other activities that make it a success every year include five "canning" weekends, benefit concerts, 5K walk/runs and local business involvement. Penn State students also volunteer at the hospital by playing and doing arts and crafts with the children.

Casey Moore knows firsthand the hard work Penn State students perform in support of the fund. Now a senior majoring in English and Spanish, Moore was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a form of childhood leukemia, at age 12. As a native of Harrisburg, she was immediately referred to Children's Hospital to begin treatment. There, her family was encouraged by staff to attend THON. Ten years later, her entire family still attends the event in support of the organization's efforts to fight cancer.

Moore's life would never be the same following her first minutes at THON -- it gave her strength as a cancer patient.

"It is an experience indescribable to most people -- when you gaze around the floor and realize that there are thousands of people who are fighting so hard for you and other kids like you, it is humbling, yet encouraging," she said.

For eight years, Moore's involvement with THON was strictly as a cancer family. After she won her battle with leukemia, she became involved with Penn State Altoona's dance marathon. This year, she will be making THON history, becoming half of the first-ever "Survivors Couple" of dance marathon.

"We both are dancing as proof that Penn State's efforts have not gone in vain," said Moore.

Her partner, Adam Sarcia, a Penn State sophomore from West Chester majoring in marketing, was diagnosed with cancer at age 15.

"I think the Survivors Couple will be great for the kids who are coming up to visit during THON," he said. "They will be able to see us and see how well we are doing after our struggles with childhood cancer. I'm hoping that seeing us will give these kids more hope. I want to show them that they can get through all of this and live a completely normal life as Casey and I are."

Jeanette Schreiber of New Freedom, a junior majoring in human development and family studies, also became involved with THON through the Children's Hospital and the fund. When she was diagnosed with acute promyleocitic leukemia at age 16, the first person her family talked to about her condition was not a doctor, but a social worker from The Four Diamonds Fund. They were informed how the fund would help them in their battle, including covering extra expenses such as prescriptions, nutritionists and psychiatrists.

When Schreiber began her freshman year at University Park, she knew she had to become involved with the organization that changed her life. Looking back on all of her THON experiences, as a cancer patient and student, she feels it has not only changed her life, it's defined it.

"It is so touching and uplifting to know that 700 dancers and thousands of volunteers are working to raise money to help you and kids just like you. It fills me with hope that the world isn't as bad as we think it is."

Amy Neil can be reached at

THON by the numbers

* $20 million-plus: The amount of money the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon has donated to the Four Diamonds Fund to date.

* 78: The number of dancers participating in the first THON, held in 1973. They raised $2,000. Last year, more than $3.6 million was raised by 660 dancers.

* 3,000: Number of student volunteers helping with THON.

* 2,000: The number of families that have been helped by The Four Diamonds Fund since its inception in 1973.

* 60 percent: The amount of THON proceeds raised through canister solicitation, also known as canning.

* 87 percent: The amount of The Four Diamonds Fund's income that comes from THON.

* 90: The number of new families that receive support from The Four Diamonds Fund each year.

* 6: The number of three-minute breaks given to dancers to use the restroom. That is one break every eight hours.

* 300-plus: The number of students on the morale committee, whose responsibility it is to keep up the dancers' spirits.

* 1977: The year U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum danced in THON. At the time, he was a Penn State student majoring in political science.

* 25,000: The number of people (including Four Diamonds families) that visit Rec Hall on the University Park campus during THON weekend.