Tomorrow features one of the big Penn State tradition – Dance Marathon Weekend – aka THON. THON is the largest student run charity event in the world and has been going on at Penn State for over thirty years. This weekend several hundred students will participate in a two day long dance marathon to raise money for the Four Diamonds Fund. Monies raised for the Four Diamonds Fund go to fight childhood cancer. The fund picks up the medical bills not covered by insurance for all children who are treated for cancer at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center. No child treated for cancer at Hershey ever gets a bill.
The actual dance event is actually just the culmination of months of work that thousands of PSU students have put into the fund raising. Planning for next years THON will start immediately after the conclusion of this year’s event. The logistics of pulling this thing off are incredible. There may be a couple of hundred kids dancing but there are thousands who participate in one way or another. Each dancer will have a support crew that numbers in the dozens and will work in shifts to help the dancers make it through the weekend.
Hundreds of others have spent months spearheading the actual collection of monies through all sorts of sponsorships and auxiliary events such as charity auctions (want to buy a raffle ticket on a Joe Paterno autographed Penn State Chopper? – go here), or canning events up and down the East Coast. Last year THON raised over $4M for the Four Diamonds Fund.
Others work hard on generating nationwide publicity for the event and more importantly raising awareness of childhood cancer issues. If you turn on your favorite network morning news program tomorrow you will undoubtedly see a segment devoted to THON.
Everyone that I know who has participated in this event has told me it’s been a life changing moment for them (and no I am not exaggerating). The emotional connection that the students make with the kids that they are helping is impossible to put into words, particularly by someone like me who is quite inept with them.
To get a flavor for the event, watch this video of a past segment from a few years ago on CBS Window on America.
Here’s a short video shot from the bleachers at the Recreation Hall gymnasium in 2005. Rec Hall is a 6000 seat gym that is ordinarily home to the volleyball, wrestling, and gymnastics teams. The dancers are all down on the gym floor while the crowd packs the bleachers cheering them on. You can see how packed the gym is. The event has gotten so big that this year they are moving it to the 16,000 seat Bryce Jordan Center to help accommodate spectators who had to be turned away in past years.
One of the things that keeps the dancers going over the course of the weekend is the once an hour line dance that they do. Each year a new unique line dance is created. It’s set to a pop music track but the lyrics all summarize worldwide, national, and local events that have taken place over the previous year. I know people who danced in the marathon 10-15 years ago but they can repeat their dance and lyrics at the drop of a hat. Here’s a video that captures the line dance from 2006.
Here’s another promotional video set to the music from Gladiator. Two things stand out in this one. One you get to see lots of the young kids who have been helped by the charity. The event and the dance floor are open to all former and current patients at the children’s center at Hershey. For some of them, THON has become a yearly event that they look forward to like a vacation. Another thing that you get fleeting glimpses of in this video are various Penn State athletic teams. Each team traditionally puts together a short skit/dance of their own and team members get on stage to dance for the dancers. The idea is to break up the monotony that the dancers are going through with hourly activities. Something different happens at the top of every hour and the dancers are always looking forward to the next hour.
One of the more moving THON moments happens during mail call which is at 3:30 AM Sunday morning. The dancers are all identified months in advance. It’s an incredible honor to be able to actually dance in the event and it’s not something that you can just walk in and sign up for. Each dancer is comes from a sponsoring organization either on campus or around town and the competition for the honor of dancing is enormous. Because the dancers are all well identified there’s plenty of time for the dance marathon committee to contact friends and family of the dancers to solicit cards and letter in support of the dancers efforts. In the middle of their second night on their feet the kids are really dragging. At that point, “Mike the Mailman”, a local on campus legendary figure, brings in literally thousands of letters for the dancers (each dancer will get 100+ letters. For the last few years, Mike has been accompanied by “Mr McFeeley” the postman on Mr Rogers Neighborhood. Interspersed with the letters from each dancer’s friends and families are letters from many of the kids who have survived their cancer bouts with help from the Four Diamonds Fund. Most of the kids letters are specifically addressed to a dancer but some are pulled out and read on stage to all of participants. Many of them are incredibly touching and when they are read there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
For more info, check out THON’s Wikipedia entry.
Probably the best way to wrap up this post is to link to this year’s promotional video. And I’ll end it by signing off the way that all THON correspondance is typically concluded as a reminder that this is all being done “For The Kids”.