EMS benefiting THON dancers reflect on inspiration and support

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Laser tag, making blankets for families fighting cancer, fishing — and of course, a 46-hour dance marathon — are some of the most memorable activities from the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (THON) activities for the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) benefiting THON team. The group raised $71,302.45 in the fight against childhood cancer, making it the third-highest general organization in THON for 2016. The EMS benefiting THON group raised the largest amount of any general organization from 2011 to 2015.

The EMS benefiting THON team had seven dancers in 2016, all of whom learned about THON in Total Orientation To Earth and Mineral Sciences (TOTEMS), a weekend of activities designed to help incoming first-year students transition to college life.

Providing more than financial support

THON is well known because it is the largest student-run philanthropy in the U.S. But the financial support is just part of the package. The yearlong THON activities focus on providing emotional support to families who are paired with various THON organizations. The EMS benefiting THON group supported four families in 2016.

Student volunteers plan weekend trips to spend time with families, whether the family is bereaved, fighting cancer or recovering from a successful battle. For the EMS benefiting THON dancers, this interaction with family members — not only getting to know their story, but to be part of their story — has inspired them to plan more trips and become more involved.

Shelby Miller said that seeing how the families have changed through the years is something she will always remember.

“We’ve spent so much time with our THON families, like playing laser tag for Jackson Hollinger’s birthday or going fishing at the Brewer family’s cabin,” said Miller, an environmental systems engineering major. “It’s amazing to see how the children and families we’re supporting have changed through the years. They are awesome people. Knowing their stories and what they’ve gone through with cancer has fueled my passion to be more involved in THON.”

Presence over presents

The EMS benefiting THON group stresses “presence over presents,” said Maggie Norton, a geography major and EMS benefiting THON executive director.

“We’d rather be with them than send them gifts, even if we are not physically in the same room. Posting a Facebook picture of our THON meetings and sharing that with families can go a long way — it’s a reminder to them that we’re always thinking about them,” she said.

That presence means students take time out of their busy school schedules to be with families fighting childhood cancer, like the Schmidts, whose 6-year-old daughter Emily is undergoing treatment for cancer. 2016 was the first year the Schmidts were involved in THON and they were paired with the EMS benefiting THON team.

“One of my favorite activities leading up to THON this year was the first time the Schmidts came to campus for a THON event, which was a 5K fundraiser,” said Josh Gugel, a meteorology major and EMS benefiting THON dancer. “Emily was a little shy at first, but she quickly began playing with a hula hoop with us and singing songs from 'Frozen' with Penn State cheerleaders. This was her first experience with something related to THON, and she enjoyed it so much that she asked her mom right away if she could come back and be more involved.”

EMS Benefiting THON 2016 - 5K

EMS benefiting THON dancers Maggie Norton, left, and Kim Schmid, right, run with Emily Schmidt at a 5K fundraiser for THON. The 5K was one of the many ways that dancers interacted with Four Diamonds families throughout the year.

Image: Penn State

Support goes both ways

Bereaved families like the Brewers, who lost their son, Troy, to cancer in 2006, actively share their stories in hopes that other families won’t have to experience a tragic loss.

“The Four Diamonds families support volunteers and each other just as much as we support them. Seeing the Brewer family talk about Troy is helping them cope, but those stories also help inspire volunteers to keep fighting this fight,” said Miller.

EMS benefiting THON volunteers helped the Brewers with an annual THON activity created in their son’s memory. Because Troy was regularly cold when he was in the hospital with cancer, the Brewers now make blankets for other families fighting cancer. The EMS benefiting THON group helps out with this, and in 2016 they made 15 blankets that were donated to children’s hospitals.

EMS Benefiting THON 2016 - Blankets of Love

EMS benefiting THON student volunteers helped the Brewers, a Four Diamonds family, make blankets to donate to children's hospitals.

Image: Penn State

Inspiring future volunteers

Just as the dancers all learned about THON through their experience with TOTEMS, they all decided during 2016, their senior year, to become TOTEMS mentors for incoming students.

“We all were mentors in TOTEMS this year, and it was interesting to be able to share our experience and help others to get excited about THON like we had during our freshman year,” said Gugel.

Norton said that she focused a great deal of her leadership this year on training volunteers for next year’s THON activities.

“I had great leaders lead me and inspire me to get involved so much, I wanted to give that same inspiration back to other people,” she said. “Our goal was to inspire people to give up a small amount of free time because it really does make a difference in the lives of the families we support.”

group of students posing and making diamond shapes with hands

Students from the EMS benefiting THON team show their support for THON before a canning weekend to raise funds.

Image: Penn State

About THON and how to get involved

THON is a student-run philanthropy committed to enhancing the lives of children and families impacted by childhood cancer. Its mission is to provide emotional and financial support, spread awareness, and ensure funding for critical research — all in pursuit of a cure. Overall, THON 2016 raised $9.8 million, which supports Four Diamonds at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.

Any students interested in getting involved in the EMS benefiting THON team can visit emsftk.org for more information.

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Last Updated March 14, 2016