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Dancing at THON a Dream Come True for York’s Dancers

Penn State York Dancers
Savannah Smith, left, and Jen Lake, Penn State York's THON dancers, canned outside the Lion's Pride in Red Lion to help raise money for children with cancer.
2/17/2010 —

Running, exercising, cutting caffeine and sugar, and buying orange attire are just a few things Penn State York students Jen Lake, 18, and Savannah Smith, 18, are doing as they get ready to head to University Park to represent the campus in the Thirty-eighth Annual Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, “Love Belongs Here,” set for Feb. 19 – 21 at the Bryce Jordan Center. The two dancers were chosen to represent Penn State York based on spirit points they earned since September by doing a variety of activities to raise funds for THON and promote the event. THON, as the dance marathon is affectionately known, is the largest student-run philanthropy in the country and its goal is to raise money to help fight pediatric cancer.

For York’s dancers, and members of the campus’ THON committee, the year has included a variety of fundraising efforts such as hosting a talent show called Paw Search, selling candy grams and carnations for Valentine’s Day, working at the coat check at the Pullo Family Performing Arts Center, selling Bon Ton community day books, and successfully taking part in canning weekends (soliciting donations) at several locations in the York area. Under the direction of Stephanie Behrens, 20, of York, Pa., and Todd Gutierrez, 21, of Lancaster, Pa., who danced at THON last year; the group has been very busy. Behrens and Gutierrez have attended meetings at University Park to catch-up on all the THON rules and expectations and have been having weekly meetings with the campus THON Committee since September.

In addition to raising money, through THON, the campus sponsors two families: the Hill family and the Hagens family. For the past four years, York sponsored Madison “Maddie” Hill. Hill, 12, of Dover, Pa., has been battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since October 2005. She completed her treatments in February 2008 and celebrated two years out of treatment on Feb. 15. She is in remission and today is a happy healthy preteen. In addition to Hill, Penn State York is also sponsoring 2-year-old Ava Hagens, of York, Pa., who was diagnosed on July 24, 2009, with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). She is undergoing treatment and this will be her first trip to THON along with her parents Jessica and Greg. The Hill family, Maddie, Dawn, Scott, and Travis will also be attending THON.

THON, a year-round fundraising event benefits The Four Diamonds Fund, Conquering Childhood Cancer, at the Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital in Hershey, Pa. The year culminates in a no-sitting, no-sleeping, two-day dance marathon. Throughout the past 37 years, the students of THON have raised more than $61 million and have helped thousands of children and families fight pediatric cancer. Last year the event raised more than $7.4 million and broke its own record. The mission of The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon is to conquer pediatric cancer by providing outstanding emotional and financial support to the children, families, researchers, and staff of The Four Diamonds Fund.

Lake, of Wellsville, Pa., is a freshman majoring in aerospace engineering and a 2009 graduate of Northern High School. She began her involvement with THON as a freshman in high school.

“I became involved with THON and The Four Diamonds Fund during my freshmen year at Northern after volunteering with planning a MiniTHON,” Lake recalls. “I fell in love with both organizations and that was one of my main reasons for going to Penn State – I wanted to volunteer but I never thought I’d dance.”

Lake also met a little girl named Becca last year who was also diagnosed with ALL and although she is healthy now, she is her inspiration for dancing in THON. Three other things serving as her inspiration are the song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey; a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson “Our strength grows out of our weaknesses;” and a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face . . . we must do that which we think we cannot.”

Smith, of Red Lion, Pa., is a freshman majoring in public relations and a 2009 graduate of Red Lion High School. She is part of a THON family and the event is very personal to her. She lost her brother Jed, just 12-years old, to leukemia on January 3 of this year so for her, dancing at THON is a very special way to remember her late brother.

“THON is a huge part of my life. I am a Four Diamonds sibling so dancing in THON has always been a dream and hope of mine since attending my first THON in 2003,” said Smith. “I’ve always admired what the dancers were doing for my family and hoped that one day I could do it for someone else. I will be dancing for Ava, Maddie, all the kids, and in remembrance of my brother.”

This is Smith’s eighth year being involved in THON but her first as a dancer. She also started a Mini-THON, a 12-hour version, at Red Lion High School which is in its fourth year.

Smith’s inspiration, “My brother was a smart and smiling boy and I am missing him very much. THON was his favorite weekend of the year and I will be dedicating every step I take in the Bryce Jordan Center during THON weekend to his beautiful memory.”

Smith and Lake consider it an honor to be dancing and although they didn’t know each other before attending Penn state York, they are best friends now and preparing for the big dance together. Smith is doing a yoga move called “Supermans” every night before bed to strengthen her lower back muscles and she shared this tip with fellow dancer Lake. The tip was shared with Smith at THON 2008 by another dancer. Both young women are worried about staying awake and Lake, who has asthma, is a little concerned about that but they are determined.

This will only be Lake’s second time at the University Park campus and her first at THON so Smith is being one of her biggest supporters.

“I am a veteran at THON and she is a rookie,” said Smith with a laugh, “I’m looking forward to being able to share her first THON experience with her. I couldn’t be more honored to be dancing by her side,” said Smith.

During THON weekend, more than 700 dancers and thousands of supporters come together at University Park in the hopes of one day finding a cure for pediatric cancer. Whether standing for 46 hours as a dancer, entertaining the crowd, taking care of the facility, or even sitting in the stands, every person at THON plays a small part in creating an amazing atmosphere of love, compassion, and understanding. This atmosphere inspires the students to fundraise throughout the year and tells the families of The Four Diamonds Fund that they have the care and support they need. This collective effort, involving more than 15,000 students, has become one of Penn State's greatest and most unifying traditions.

There’s still time to donate. The best way to be sure your donation is counted in time is to visit the campus or donate online. Anyone interested in supporting the dancers from Penn State York can send checks made payable to:

Penn State Dance Marathon
c/o York Student Government Association
Penn State York
1031 Edgecomb Ave.
York, PA 17403

Please be sure to note York, Org. 170 in the memo line of the check. Checks sent to the local campus will be credited to the local dancers and then added to the final total at University Park. Donations can also be made online at THON.org. Be sure to use the dropdown box and designate your donation for York and your donation will be counted toward the campus total.

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