At the end of 46 hours of nonstop dancing, the leadership of THON2020 has announced this year’s fundraising total: a whopping $11,696,942.38, up from $10.6 million last year. This brings THON’s overall fundriasing total since 1973 to $179.7 million, securing THON’s spot as the largest student-run philanthropy in the world.
Look for a final wrap-up story tomorrow, February 24th, from reporter Susan Snyder, with an exclusive video from visuals expert Kristen Balderas, on Inquirer.com and in print in The Philadelphia Inquirer. To learn more about THON - the 46-hour dance marathon created and run by Penn State students to support pediatric cancer research and patient support, read Snyder’s weekend updates, below, and her kick-off story, published at the beginning of dance marathon.
THON, which funds pediatric cancer research and patient support, is all student run, and at the head is Regina Duesler, 22, a Huntingdon Valley native majoring in accounting and finance.
The job, she said, has been a dream come true.
“It’s probably the most impactful thing I have done in my life and I will do in the foreseeable future,” she said.
She got up at 3 a.m. and arrived at the Bryce Jordan Center soon afterward to begin overseeing the massive setup.
Duesler wore a headset that keeps her in touch with several hundred THON “captains” on more than a dozen communication channels. She also toted walkie-talkies that let her speak directly with the managers of the center.
Around her, volunteers worked to erect the DJ stage, install barricades, and finalize an admissions procedure that will allow 10,000 people to enter the Bryce Jordan Center within a 60-minute window. The cavernous space has a capacity of 15,000, and THON is expected to hit that several times over the weekend as participants enter and exit the arena.
As executive director, Duesler oversees a 16-member committee leading 16,500 student volunteers. She’s the main point person for dealing with the university and Four Diamonds, the charity that THON raised $10.6 million for last year. Throughout the year, she’s been busy preparing for the big event, even more so over the last few weeks.
She’s learned to balance her THON duties with her studies, she said, honing a lot of professional skills along the way, including time management.
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 her extended family owns.
“That’s where I’ve learned most of life’s lessons,” she said. “We have a saying in our store: ‘You’re not done until everyone is done.’ That has been my life motto.”
Duesler, a graduate of Nazareth Academy High School in the Northeast, got involved with THON her freshman year. She was struck by the sense of unity and happiness a large group of college students found by working together for a charity. By sophomore year, she was a student captain and remembers a visit to Penn State Children’s Hospital, where Four Diamonds is based.
“I was lucky enough to be there when a child rang the bell for the last day of chemotherapy,” she said. “That moment for me was really, really incredible, to put a face to the mission that we talk so much about.”
She’s stayed involved every year, and in a couple hours, she will help kick off THON 2020. She’ll stay at the marathon throughout the weekend, and will be awake for the vast majority. Like other leaders, she’ll get two four-hour sleep shifts, her first at 3 a.m. Saturday.
“We’ve prepared all year for this,” she said with a big smile.
Now, it’s here.
At THON with his girlfriend Friday night, Brady Lucas took it all in: The thousands of spectators cheering and waving their Greek letter signs in the stands. The music. The more than 700 dancers who sprang to their feet when the 6 p.m. start came, snapping pictures, laughing, dancing.
It was the beginning of their journey, a journey Lucas knows so well. THON has been a part of his life for more than half of it
First as a young cancer patient receiving support from the charity that THON raises money for.
Then as a Penn State student dancing to raise money to help others.
And now, as a gift officer for the Four Diamonds charity, THON’s main beneficiary.
“There’s just so much emotion there,” said Lucas, 23, sporting a powder blue Four Diamonds shirt. “It’s a privilege every day that I get to wake up and do what I’m doing.”
Lucas was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 8. There were bone marrow biopsies, spinal taps, and rounds of chemotherapy, made somewhat more bearable by the support his York family received from Four Diamonds.
Three years later, he attended his first THON and fondly remembers touring the Lasch football building and meeting players. That might have been the end of his involvement in THON, but he relapsed in 2011.
His odds of survival were less, but a bone marrow transplant from his brother helped put the cancer in remission again.
A year later he returned to THON, feeling more celebratory than he had in the past, having just endured a tougher, second battle with cancer. He and his family were paired with Phi Kappa Sigma, a Penn State fraternity that participates in THON. The organization matches Penn state student groups with families, and their relationship often continues after THON, sometimes for years.
When it came time to choose a college, Lucas never gave it a second thought.
“I wanted to go to the university that helped play a part in saving my life,” he said.
He quickly got involved with THON and, fittingly, joined the same fraternity that adopted him as a teen. He spoke and danced at the 2016 THON, a symbol of hope for other families whose children were sick.
“By the end of the weekend, I just started balling my eyes out," he said, recalling his long battle with cancer. “There were times when I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the next day, and now I was giving children a chance to have that next day.”
He graduated with a degree in bio behavioral health, but by that time, he knew he wanted to continue to work in philanthropy.
While a number of young cancer patients have gone on to attend Penn State and dance in or volunteer for the decades-old THON, Lucas is the first to be employed by the charity after graduation.
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, I think it’s a powerful and captivating reason to give,” he said.
Dancing for 46 hours, no sleeping or sitting — that’s the task before more than 700 student dancers participating in THON at Penn State this weekend. By late Saturday morning, dancers had been at it for more than 16 hours, and it was starting to show.
Dante DiStefano, a sophomore from Philadelphia, had changed his shoes three times. He was sporting white socks and Birkenstocks about 10:30 a.m.
“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. My toes could wiggle. Now, I’m in my Birkenstocks. It’s just a different feel, and your feet feel a lot better. I also change socks. That helps a lot.”
DiStefano was one of many dancers who were seeking support at a variety of help stations in the Bryce Jordan Center.
Near him was a nurses station, where upper-level nursing majors volunteer in four-hour shifts. Their main job is to distribute medications to dancers who’ve been prescribed them (and who are required to turn over all of their medicines before the marathon begins).
“Dancer morale” volunteers — each dancer has one assigned — monitor well-being, keep track of dancers’ medicine schedules and escort dancers to the nurses station to take their doses.
The process ensures that medications are taken at the proper time: no windows or clocks are visible from the dance floor, so dancers frequently have no concept of time. The morale volunteers repeatedly reset dancers’ phones to different time zones because the dancers aren’t allowed to know what time it is but want to keep their phones with them.
Dancers also visit the nurses’ station for pain relievers, or other over-the-counter meds.
“I’ve heard a lot of complaints about feet and legs starting to hurt,” said Alexis Boone, 21, a junior nursing major from Northern Virginia, “a little bit of lower back, a couple headaches, a little nausea."
Some people, she explained, get nauseated if they aren’t eating properly or not hydrating enough. Plus, being awake so long can throw off body rhythms, she said.
Down the hall, athletic training majors were helping dancers stretch, providing ice bags and taping ankles. By Saturday night, the trainers will have filled large vats with ice and water for dancers to soak their feet.
“We’ll stand them in there for five minutes and that wakes them up,” said Gabrielle Hahn, 21, a senior from Lancaster.
More severe cases are referred to emergency medical services, also staffed mostly by students.
“Every single dancer is watched over the whole weekend,” said Regina Duesler, THON’s student executive director. “If their health or safety is at stake, we sit them down.”
As of late Saturday morning, nearly halfway through the marathon, all dancers were still standing. If past experience is any indicator, they’ll make it to the end, said Dan Mele, THON’s student head of public relations.
Fewer than a dozen typically bow out for various reasons, including extreme fatigue, he said.
“What we’ve learned over the years is how to accommodate dancers,” said Mele, a senior marketing major from Hawley in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
A month before the event, dancers are encouraged to give up caffeine and alcohol and work out at least three times a week.
There are massage stations, where dancers can lean over a table and get a kneading or have their hair washed. And they can accept a piggyback ride from a willing friend or family member.
The dance floor is covered with “anti-fatigue” matting, which is easier on the muscles and joints, Mele said. And food and liquids are plentiful: Food on hand includes 2,500 subs, 1,950 bagels, 1,900 servings of pasta and 1,750 servings of salad.
At the end of the event Sunday, a parent or guardian must sign out each dancer to ensure they get home safely.
Some dancers struggle more than others. But then there are pros like senior Sarafina Valenti of Bechtelsville, Berks County, who is dancing in her third THON.
“One hour in, 45 to go, and I’m pumped,” she yelled Friday night, as she and a friend took a selfie to post online.
By Saturday morning, she was stretching it out and still smiling. She knows the pain in her feet will come, she said, and that the back of her knees will “kill.” And it’s always sad when friends who have come to lend her emotional support must leave to go home.
“When you’re really down, when you’re really tired, 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.”
Shortly before 2 a.m. Sunday, student volunteers poured onto the dance floor carrying boxes of letters that had been written to the more than 700 dancers by their friends and family. This is typically the time when morale starts to waver, and dancers need those words of encouragement to get through.
Julia Duemler, 21, had just returned from the athletic training room where she got her ankles taped. She said she had a bit of a breakdown earlier but felt better.
“My feet are tired. My eyes are tired. The last couple hours have been an emotional rollercoaster,” the Montgomery County student said. “Emotions are running high, especially with my Dad."
Duemler is dancing in memory of her father, Dave Duemler, who died of colon cancer 10 years ago. The anniversary of his death was coincidentally on Friday, the day THON started.
Duemler received a pile of letters, cards and packages, encouraging her to make it to the end. Many of them mentioned her father.
“You’re doing so amazing!!!” said a letter from the former president of Delta Gamma, the sorority she belongs to. “Your passion for THON and your love for your Dad and whole family is so inspiring.”
“Your Dad was always all in," another family friend wrote in a card titled: “Advice from a Sea Turtle.”
As she read them, Duemler juggled her weight from foot to foot, trying to relieve the pain. Words of wisdom from her mother Lisa Dent Duemler came just at the right time.
“Remember cancer pain hurts,” her mom wrote. "Dancer pain is bad too. But you will overcome.”
A five-page letter from her father’s best friends she set aside for later. She wanted to absorb every word when she is able.
At one point, she confessed: “I can’t comprehend this.”
The fatigue was too great. She had been awake and on her feet for more than 32 hours.
Her mom also sent her a black tank top that said “Stay Positive. Work Hard. Make it Happen.”
Duemler held it up and smiled.
She didn’t know it — dancers aren’t allowed to know what time it is — but there were less than 14 hours to go until the 46-hour THON would be over.
For a family with small children, there’s often no better time than Christmas.
That’s not the case for Kiara Laboy and her daughters.
They’re attending THON with their daughter, Kaylahni, 10, who overcame a rare form of brain cancer as an infant.
“THON, to us, is better than Christmas,” said Kiara Laboy, a supervisor at Fulton Financial from Millersville. “We go every year and we stay all weekend.”
The Laboys were among several hundred families who filled Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center this weekend, mingling on the floor with the more than 700 dancers raising money for pediatric cancer research and patient support. This afternoon, THON will host “family hour” when some families will go on stage and tell their stories. It’s typically one of the most heart-warming times at the 46-hour event.
For the Laboys, it’s even more special this year because Kaylahni is celebrating her 10th anniversary of being cancer free. The Laboys have received much support along the way from the Four Diamonds charity, for which THON raises money.
“The least we can do is give them those 46 hours to help support them,” she said.
Kaylahni was just four months old when she was diagnosed. She underwent experimental treatment and chemotherapy. She also had brain surgery and a stem cell transplant.
Kiara Laboy said she was unable to return to work after maternity leave. And her husband, she said, lost his job, too.
Four Diamonds provided emotional and financial support, she said. The family has never received a bill, she said.
“Their help is above and beyond,” she said. “They helped us keep a roof over our head and the bills paid.”
And they still help, she said, with follow up testing and appointments.
From the time the Laboys got involved with Thon, their family was paired with the Delta Gamma sorority. That’s the same sorority that Julia Duemler is dancing for in honor of her father, who died of colon cancer 10 years ago.
On the floor Saturday with Duemler and other dancers from Delta Gamma, Kaylahni wanted the Delta Gamma sisters to know how much their support over the years has meant to her. So she wrote them a letter.
“You guys are the ones that make me happy,” she wrote. “You cheer me up by calling me whenever you can...That is why I love you guys. You keep me strong.”