Mini-THONs, monumental impacts

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Throughout the country, elementary, middle, and high school students are coming together to fight for a bigger cause — and it’s not longer lunch periods.

What started as a few students’ grassroots efforts in 1993 has grown into nearly 70,000 students in 235 schools across seven different states, participating in a powerful movement called Mini-THON.

Mini-THONs, modeled after the Penn State Panhellenic/IFC Dance Marathon (THON), raise awareness and funds for Four Diamonds, whose mission is to conquer childhood cancer. The money raised by Mini-THON — though separate from THON’s annual totals — helps families afford the care and treatment their children need while also funding critical, innovative research for a cure. Last year, the collective efforts of all Mini-THON schools helped to raise $5.5 million for Four Diamonds.

“These students are helping children and families in so many ways,” explained Kristen Masengarb, associate director of Four Diamonds. “But they are also getting the opportunity to learn life and leadership skills and what it means to give back to your community.”

Each Mini-THON operates differently, though all are multi-hour and interactive, often including dancing, music, sports tournaments, games and fun activities. Fundraising and planning for the event can take anywhere from six weeks to nine months, all through student and adviser efforts.

While the two organizations are separate entities, THON and Mini-THON support and collaborate with each other throughout the year. Mini-THON student leaders and their advisors are invited to a conference each summer to learn from Four Diamonds and THON about best practices for executing Mini-THONs and why the mission to conquer pediatric cancer is so important. Additionally, about 100 Mini-THON students are invited to the Mini-THON Appreciation Event during THON Weekend.

Mini-THONs strive to capture the spirit and liveliness of THON, and by doing so, they create a population of students who are passionate about and active in their respective communities.

“The beautiful thing about THON and Mini-THON is the legacy they’re creating,” said Kelly Walker, communications manager of Four Diamonds. “Many Mini-THON students go on to pursue Penn State and involve themselves in THON, and then as alumni, they look to bring Mini-THONs to their communities.”

John Gildea — Penn State alumnus, 1997 THON dancer, and current Springfield High School Mini-THON adviser — agreed.

“Have people step foot into the Bryce Jordan Center, have them tour the oncology floor at Penn State Children’s Hospital, have them attend a Mini-THON,” he said. “They will surely come back, only next time, they will bring others with them.”

Gildea is not alone. Of the 235 Mini-THON schools, 82 have Mini-THON advisers who are Penn State alumni.

Over the past several years, too, many Mini-THON student leaders have transitioned into leadership roles within THON’s executive boards, committees and special-interest organizations. Megan Renaut, executive director of THON 2015, started a Mini-THON at her elementary school in fifth grade and believes that experience has taught her more about herself than any other endeavor.

Now a Penn State alumna on the board for The Liberty Ball in Philadelphia — a THON fundraiser hosted by the Philadelphia Chapter of the Alumni Association — Renaut said, “When I realized there was a way to give back and fight, I was determined to make it happen.”

The truth is, Mini-THONs are anything but mini. They reach an enormous audience of future, current, and past Penn Staters who are passionate about bettering the lives of children and families who are fighting a much harder battle.

“Mini-THON and THON work together for a common purpose,” Masengarb said. “And that’s to conquer childhood cancer.”

To get involved in Four Diamonds Mini-THON, click here.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Alumni Association's monthly e-newsletter for enrolled members. Visit the Alumni Association's website for options on joining.

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Last Updated February 01, 2017