This past weekend, Penn State THON – the largest student-run philanthropy in the world – returned to the Bryce Jordan Center on the Penn State University Park campus where 667 dancers stood for a 46-hour stretch to raise funds to help fight pediatric cancer.

Several Lebanon Countians were part of this year’s record-breaking philanthropic bonanza, taking part in a THON that was extra special due to the event having been virtual last year for the first time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

THON 2022 raised $13,756,374.50, bringing the organization’s historic total to over $203 million generated for the Four Diamonds fund since the partnership officially began in 1977. Four Diamonds is Penn State Health’s philanthropic arm benefiting pediatric cancer patients and research at Penn State Children’s Hospital, located at the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

“THON this year was the best weekend of my life,” said dancer and Cedar Crest graduate Kathleen Steckbeck. “I was overjoyed that it was back in the BJC and it just felt right.”

“I would sum it up by saying it was a place where everyone was together for the same reasons and you could feel that. It just felt like home.”

Cedar Crest graduate Rose McDaid, whom LebTown profiled as a dancer in 2020, echoed those feelings, speaking about her experience this year serving as a captain on the dancer relations (DR) committee – the folks who help dancers prepare for and thrive during the physically intensive 46-hour event.

McDaid said she was honored, grateful, and filled with everlasting love from being part of the event. Every year has been a different experience, she said, as she has strived to make an impact in the organization.

“This year was so incredible and it felt amazing to be a part of THON on so many different levels,” said McDaid.

In her position as a DR captain, McDaid tapped into the unique experience of having been a THON dancer. “Dancing in THON is one of those things that you can never fully understand until you do it,” said McDaid. “Knowing exactly what dancing was like for me, what helped me through the weekend, what didn’t help, and what I wish there was more of, helped me plan the best weekend I could for the THON 2022 dancers with my co-captains.”

One of the ways McDaid used her experience as a dancer to contribute to THON was working with one of her co-captains to create Dancer Re-Charge Hour focused on the mental well-being of the dancers.

“We set up standing tables with journaling pages, coloring pages, stress balls, puzzles, and other word puzzle games,” said McDaid. “We also created a sequin sensory board that dancers and families loved!”

McDaid (left) and her dancer relations co-captain after they had finished setting up for an event called the Playground that provides a change of scenery for THON dancers and families during the 46-hour no-sitting fundraiser. (Provided photo)

Another Cedar Crest grad, Joshua Wildonger, also danced this year, representing the six families supported by his organization, Phi Psi and AOPi. (THON dancers mostly work as part of larger organizations, such as Greek organizations, club sports, or other student organizations, but independent dancers are always part of the mix, too.)

“It has been an honor to get to know our paired families throughout the last few years and it makes dancing so much more special when you have a relationship with these families,” said Wildonger.

Wildonger said the experience exceeded his expectations, and that he was fortunate not to hit any walls or energy crashes early in the event. “Throughout the weekend I had friends and family visit me on the floor at all times which really helped me get through the weekend,” he said. “Everyone that visited brought so much energy that helped greatly.”

Wildonger said one of his favorite parts of the weekend was going through the human tunnel that saw THON volunteers and supporters cheering dancers on as they traversed from Penn State Football’s Holuba Hall to the Bryce Jordan Center.

“It was so cool to see everyone cheering for us as we starting our dancing experience and gave me a lot of energy to start the weekend,” he said.

Wildonger said he was able to see the Phi Psi and AOPi families a few times throughout the weekend, as well as meeting new families. He also got to catch up with Cedar Crest Middle School teacher Raymond Truex on the dance floor; Truex’s son is a THON child.

“It was great to see him there and meet his whole family,” said Wildonger. “I remember hearing him talk about THON when I had him in class and it has now come full circle where I was able to be a dancer and see him there.”

So many of those who THON have personal stories like this about why they THON.

“I began my THON journey in fourth grade when my best friend asked me attend with his family to support his cousin,” said Cedar Crest graduate and hospitality committee captain Maya Reed, whose THON involvement has spanned many of the committees that make the weekend possible. The friend’s cousin Reed supported at that early THON visit was Eli Sidler, whose courageous spirit in his fight against Ewing’s Sarcoma lives on through the CHEMOWARRIER foundation.

“Little did I know at that point that THON was forever going to change my life.”

Reed explained to LebTown that to Four Diamonds families, THON means much more than financial and emotional support – to them, THON is family.

“These kids are so much more than their cancer stories,” said Reed. “They each have a favorite color, a favorite book. Some play sports; some like to sing and dance.”

“To our families, THON is a way for their children to express their passions and experience support from a family of thousands of students, cheering them on through anything. Just as importantly, THON allows their children to leave a legacy.”

Reed emphasized the meaning in the fact that when THON supporters pass along stories of the children (or “angels,” in Reed’s words) they have supported, the focus is not on the specific cancer they had, or the hospitals they visited and treatments they endured. “We tell stories about who they were as people, and the beautiful impacts they have left on our lives,” said Reed. “To me, that is what a family does – cherish both the perfect and imperfect moments that we shared with our loved ones while endlessly smiling and laughing as we tell their stories.”

Reed pictured with her hospitality co-captains in a huddle towards the end of THON weekend. The hospitality committee is responsible for arranging the donations, meal plans, and logistics that go into keeping the dancers fed and hydrated throughout the weekend. (Provided photo)

For Steckbeck and the other dancers with local roots, personal connections to those who fought cancer motivate them to push through the weekend, and imbue in it a deep meaningfulness that’s hard to explain unless you’ve visited or participated in the event.

“I THON for my mom, who is a breast cancer survivor, and for Daniel Popje, our 3-year-old Four Diamonds child,” said Steckbeck. “He has been through so much in the first few years of his life and I would never wish that on any child or any family.

“He is so brave and inspiring and I couldn’t have done it without him this weekend.”

Steckbeck in the Bryce Jordan Center concourse posing with her Penn State Baseball Club co-dancer and their Four Diamonds family, Daniel Popje and his mom Shannon Pomroy, who live in Hummelstown. (Provided photo)

McDaid shared a similar origin story. “My THON journey started in the sixth grade when I learned that I had neighbors and friends whose lives were being affected by childhood cancer,” she said. “I went to Penn State’s THON for the first time in 2012 (so 10 years ago) and I joined my middle school’s mini THON.”

“I THON because this organization not only raises money to help families and researchers, but it gives a space for kids to feel important and seen and special and allow them to dance and laugh and forget about cancer for 46 hours.”

As profound as the weekend is, it is also a visual spectacle the magnitude of which pictures can hardly convey – even though this year’s event was slightly reduced from pre-pandemic THONs, when the Bryce Jordan Center could be so packed one could hardly move, there was no shortage of surprises and wonders for dancers to help them make it through the weekend’s physical trials and leave families and other visitors with indelible memories.

“I went into the weekend with a good idea of how it would be because in the past I stayed in the stands for 30+ hours and I watched two of my older sisters dance,” said Steckbeck, while also noting that she “did not expect my low/tired points to be so low.”

Steckbeck said at times she felt a little delusional, and overstimulated by the lights and music towards the end, but she was able to push through by seeing Daniel (her organization’s Four Diamonds child) and his family, as well as all the other families in the BJC there for the final four hours.

Steckbeck and fellow dancers alongside 3-year-old Four Diamonds child Daniel Popje in a photo that captures the wonder THON weekend can inspire in the children who are its singular focus. (Provided photo)

Rest assured, a labor of love though THON is, there are plenty of people whose sole job during the weekend is taking care of dancers.

“I was surprised with how often they fed us and how much water and Gatorade I was drinking throughout the weekend,” said Wildonger. “We were given meals every 3-5 hours apart from each other and I can’t remember a time I didn’t have a water bottle in my hand.”

THON dancers also receive a special type of correspondence during the weekend, known as dancer mail. Wildonger said he was surprised at how much mail he received.

“My mom and dad sent me two packages filled with different things throughout the weekend and one of the things inside of it was mail from my high school and middle school,” said Wildonger. “My former teachers, faculty, and students sent me a ton of mail and drawings which I was not expecting.”

Wildonger said the mail helped reenergize him during the weekend when he experienced crashes. The rest of the weekend was filled with doing the line dance every time the dancer relations captains took to the stage, getting ice baths for his feet, doing many shoe and clothing changes, getting squirted with water guns, listening to lots of music, and doing laps around the floor and ground concours of the BJC.

“After a virtual THON last year, my heart was so happy to see the life return to this organization,” said Reed. “This weekend was the perfect closure to my time in THON and I feel so proud of everyone who worked tirelessly to emotionally support our families and reach our highest fundraising total ever!”

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