Our President has called on each of us to serve our communities. In that spirit, I think it’s important to recognize one of the most unique and successful entirely student-run efforts in history – the Penn State Dance Marathon.
I am a Penn State graduate, class of 2006. As much as I am a Penn State alumnus, perhaps it’s more important to me that I’m a Dance Marathon (or “THON”) alumnus. I know that when people think Penn State, the first things they think about are football, Joe Paterno, and white helmets. But Penn State has one of the most wonderful and selfless events in the world taking place on its campus, and has acted as a model for dozens of other school’s programs around the world.
THON is year long fundraising drive that culminates in a 46 hour no sitting and no sleeping marathon to benefit the Four Diamonds Fund, which raises money to help families struggling with pediatric cancer. Since it began in 1977, THON has raised over $60 million to help families in need. In the process, it has shifted sites on campus, beginning with the small gymnasium in the White Building. But as the popularity of volunteering, dancing, and observing began to increase, the venue had to move to the near 8000 seat Rec Hall, the old basketball and current volleyball arena.
Now, THON is so popular on campus with students, parents, and faculty that Rec Hall became far too crowded. So my year, we said goodbye at Rec Hall’s final dance by raising a record $4,214,748.18! Of course, when THON moved to the 16,000 seat Bryce Jordan Center world class arena in 2007, they raised over $5 million. Last year, even as the economy spiraled downward, THON raised over $7 million. Can they break the elusive $8 million mark?
But the big questions remain – how is THON so popular on campus? And why no sleeping and no sitting for 46 hours?
15,000 students participate each year because THON gives us hope. It gives us courage and strength knowing that these little kids, as young as a year old, can struggle against a disease that’s larger than they are and come out on top. 15,000 students per year take time out of their busy schedules of classes, relationships, parties and sports to come together and run everything from the website and the live webcast, to the pre-THON galas and hospital visits, to the events that occur to entertain the dancers and kids during THON itself.
Being a THON dancer is special. Only 700 are selected to dance, and almost no one ever stops. But why?
At first, everyone wants to dance for themselves, even if they say otherwise. They want to see if they can do the impossible. They want to stand out amongst their peers. Then, around hour 8, your feet begin to swell. By hour 16, your legs begin to burn. By hour 24, your back aches, your knees are buckling, and you’re leaning on your friends and family for support in the final day ahead. You just keep dancing.
By hour 36, you’re so tired and drained that the pain in your body has made you essentially numb. And then you look around at the 3 year old boy sporting a bald head from months or years of chemotherapy. He’s running around at 11 PM with a squirt gun, having the time of his life with his “big friends.” He smiles, maybe for the first time in months. And you smile and hold your head up higher. Because all this time, you thought THON was about you. But at that moment, you’re quite aware that it was never about you to begin with.
THON is for the kids. It’s for kids that deal with that kind of pain on a round the clock daily basis. What’s 46 or 48 hours to us? They’re braver and bolder than we’ll ever be. That’s why we dance. When we find a cure, we’ll dance for joy. Until then, we dance for life.
The truth is, there’s nothing more important for me to write about than this. Please take a minute out of your day and check out the website and the history of Penn State Dance Marathon. Donate if you can spare it, or check out your local university’s own dance marathon. I know for certain that they exist at Florida, Iowa, Rutgers and NC State.