Monday, February 22, 2010

WOW! Penn State Dance Marathon Tops ALL!

Thon raises record $7.8 million

By Ed Mahon

Despite a national recession that has hampered giving to many charities, Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon raised $7,838,054.36 to help families fighting pediatric cancer.

“I’m a little in shock about the number. ... I couldn’t believe we did it,” overall chairwoman Caitlin Zankowski, a 22-year-old industrial engineering major from Pittsburgh, said in a news conference afterward.

Zankowski choked up as she revealed the total at 4:15 p.m. Sunday in front of a cheering crowd of about 16,000 inside the Bryce Jordan Center. In response, the crowd chanted “FTK” - short for “For the Kids.”

The announcement capped off the 46-hour no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon and a year of fundraising.

“You rose above it all. It’s just fantastic,” Charles Millard told Zankowski during the news conference.

In 1972, Charles and Irma Millard founded The Four Diamonds Fund in memory of their son, Christopher, who died of cancer at the age of 14. Since Thon organizers partnered with the fund in 1977, they’ve raised about $69 million to support pediatric cancer research and have covered expenses for about 2,000 families with children being treated at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.

Zankowski credited hard work from volunteers, committee members and students organizations for the increase over last year’s $7.49 million total.

“No matter what the state of the economy is ... students love this and families need us,” she said.

Thon continued to grow in ways aside from its bottom line. More than 100,000 people watched the Thon webcast during the weekend compared with 10,000 last year. At one point early Sunday afternoon, Thon was the third most common phrase appearing in Twitter messages worldwide.

The size of the crowds caused organizers to close all but one gate of the Bryce Jordan Center at 11 a.m., earlier than they did last year. From that point on, audience members could enter only as others left.

The most emotional part of Sunday for many volunteers was the Family Hour, which started about 1 p.m. Dancers, volunteers and crowd members watched videos, focusing on Four Diamonds Fund children who had survived, and also those who had died. About 240 families took the stage, and four of them addressed the crowd.

Tammy Ziegler told how her 14-year-old daughter, Miranda, was “a healthy, strong, three-sport athlete, ready to begin her first of year high school” when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in the summer of 2008.

“She cried, we cried, as she shaved the last of her hair off of her head. She said that she made bald look good,” said the mother.

“The steroids bloated her face and her belly, and you can imagine how a teenage girl would feel about that. But once again, she took it like a champ.”

Miranda’s repeated refrain during treatment: “It is what it is, let’s just do what we’ve got to do.”

But she became sicker - and died on Jan. 30, 2009, 167 days after her treatment began. While Penn State students were never able to meet Miranda in person - she was too sick for visitors - Tammy Ziegler said their support was essential.

“Her fraternity and sorority had adopted her, and her pen pal never left her side. And they’ve never left ours to this very day,” she said. “They brought smiles to her face when she was sick and they brought smiles to ours while we’ve been sad.”

At the end of Family Hour, students, volunteers and parents locked arms as the song “Angels Among Us” played. Amanda Maples hugged Mike McCauley, whose son, Lachlan, has been in remission for more than two years.

“It just touches your heart,” the 20-year-old Maples said of Family Hour, adding that it’s an “emotional ride.”

Dancer Katy Poole said she felt re-energized in the last few hours.

During the last 15 minutes, she joined a circle of friends as Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/ What a Wonderful World” played. She mimed all the motions to the last line dance. And just before the final 10-second countdown began, Poole locked hands with a friend and ran around in circles with excitement.

“There were definitely parts, like in the really early mornings - where the stands were kind of empty - it starts to get a little bit mentally draining. Your feet are kind of starting to ache,” said Poole, a 20-year-old kinesiology major from State College. “But as the kids come in, the stands start to fill up, (and) especially after your totals are released, I feel like I could stay awake for another 46 hours.”

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