It was shortly before 6 p.m. Friday when Huntingdon Valley’s Regina Duesler and her team took center stage at Pennsylvania State University’s Bryce Jordan Center.
“Penn State!” Duesler, 22, yelled into the microphone. “Are you ready to take a stand against childhood cancer?”
Thousands in the audience roared back, a Nittany Lion roar, one might say.
“Ten, nine, eight,” Duesler and her team started the countdown, “... three, two, one.
With that, more than 700 student dancers rose to their feet to participate in Penn State’s 46-hour dance marathon, known as THON. Those in the stands, representing more than 400 student organizations, cheered so enthusiastically that the arena practically shook. Another THON, aimed at raising money for pediatric cancer research and patient support, was underway.
It’s billed as the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, until this year having raised $168 million in more than 40 years. On Sunday, students added $11.69 million more, about a million more than last year.
“We are so incredibly proud of that number,” said Duesler, a finance and accounting major who served as THON’s executive director, overseeing 16,500 student volunteers.
At times, THON was like a rollicking rock concert. At times, it was poignant, with families of children who have had cancer telling their stories on stage. At times, it was both: During a kids’ talent hour Saturday evening, young children who have battled cancer danced, sang, told jokes, and went all out to entertain the dancers.
And throughout the weekend, it was often raw and emotional, with the dancers experiencing fatigue that nearly two days of being awake and standing will bring.
“My feet are tired. My eyes are tired. The last couple hours have been an emotional roller coaster,” Julia Duemler, 21, said about 2 a.m. Sunday. “Emotions are running high, especially with my dad.”
The Montgomery County senior was dancing in memory of her father, Dave Duemler, who died of colon cancer 10 years ago.
She had just returned from the athletic training room, where she got her aching ankles taped, when dozens of student volunteers poured onto the dance floor carrying boxes of letters of encouragement to dancers by friends and family.
Words of wisdom from Duemler’s mother, Lisa Dent Duemler, came at the right time.
“Remember, cancer pain hurts,” her mother wrote. "Dancer pain is bad, too. But you will overcome.”
Earlier in the weekend, there was sheer exuberance.
“One hour in, 45 to go, and I’m pumped,” Sarafina Valenti said.
It was the third THON for the senior soccer player from Bechtelsville. By Saturday morning, she was stretching it out and still smiling. She knew the pain in her feet would come, she said, and that the back of her knees would “kill.” And it’s always sad when friends who visit to lend emotional support must go home.
“When you’re really down ... you go to the middle of the floor, you take one circle, one look around the Bryce Jordan Center, and you just remember why you’re doing this,” she said. “That’s what gets you through.”
Just 16 hours in, Dante DiStefano, a sophomore from Philadelphia, had changed his shoes three times.
“I had normal sneakers to start,” the finance major said. “They were nice and cushioned, but they started compressing my feet, so I switched to Vans, which are flat, more roomy. Now, I’m in my Birkenstocks.”
The vast majority of dancers made it through, organizers said. They declined to say how many left early.
“Every single dancer is watched over the whole weekend,” Duesler said. “If their health or safety is at stake, we sit them down.”
There were massage stations, where dancers could lean over a table and get a kneading. And the dance floor was covered with “anti-fatigue” matting, which is easier on the muscles and joints.
Junior and senior nursing majors distributed medications to dancers who had been prescribed them (and who are required to turn over all of their medicines before the marathon begins). “Dancer morale” volunteers — each dancer had one assigned — monitored their well-being, kept track of dancers’ medicine schedules, and escorted participants to a bustling nurses’ station to take their doses.
The process aimed to ensure that medications would be taken at the proper time: No windows or clocks are visible from the dance floor, so dancers often had no concept of time.
Athletic training majors were helping dancers stretch and providing ice bags. More severe cases were referred to emergency medical services.
Duesler said her team didn’t face any major hurdles. She panicked for a moment when she saw six fire trucks outside with horns honking, but then realized they were there to give THON youngsters a tour.
For Duesler, the leadership role had magnitude.
“It’s probably the most impactful thing I have done in my life and will do in the foreseeable future,” she said.
Her work ethic was developed much earlier. She grew up selling fruits and vegetables alongside her cousins at the iconic P&F Giordano produce business at Ninth and Washington in the Italian Market, which members of her extended family own.
“That’s where I’ve learned most of life’s lessons,” said Duesler, a graduate of Nazareth Academy High School. “We have a saying in our store: ‘You’re not done until everyone is done.’ That has been my life motto.”
Duesler wore a headset that kept her in touch with several hundred THON “captains” on more than a dozen communication channels. She, like others on the student leadership team, slept only eight hours during the 46-hour marathon. But she changed her clothes often: She had 11 outfits, and switched them out for different events.
Duesler and her team had a big crowd to keep an eye on. The cavernous center was expected to hit capacity — 15,000 — several times over the weekend.
Duesler’s mother, father, siblings, aunts and uncles came to support her.
“She’s been a determined person since the day she was born,” said her mother, Bernice Duesler, a neonatalogist. “We’re really, really proud of her.”
She’s been impressed with Duesler’s student team, too.
“When people ask, ‘What is our future like?’” she said, “I look at these young adults that are amazing and I think our future is just fine.”
For some THON volunteers, the impact is especially real. THON has been a part of Brady Lucas’ life for more than half of it.
First, as a young leukemia patient receiving support from the charity for which THON raises money.
Then, as a Penn State student dancing in THON to raise money to help others.
And now, as a gift officer for the Four Diamonds charity, THON’s beneficiary.
While a number of young cancer patients have gone on to attend Penn State and dance in or volunteer for THON, Lucas, of York, is the first to be employed by the charity. His job is to convince people to give to it.
His pitch is personal.
“When I can look them in the eye and say the reason that I’m alive today is because of organizations like this ... it’s a powerful and captivating reason to give,” said Lucas, 23.
On Monday, his work will begin again. THON 2021 is coming.