Despite pandemic, THON will go on

MONT ALTO, Pa. –Three Penn State Mont Alto students will join thousands of other Penn Staters across the Commonwealth in a dance session like no other.

From 6 p.m. Feb. 19 to 4 p.m. Feb. 21, the group will participate in THON, which will be virtual for the first time in its more than 40-year history. Instead of about 15,000 people gathering at the Bryce Jordan Center at the University Park campus to dance for 46 hours, they will be in separate spaces all over the state.

“Pennsylvania will be taken by storm,” said Jacie Buller of Hanover, Pennsylvania, a Mont Alto senior and co-chair of the student organization Mont Alto Benefiting THON, serving with Sarah McElwain who is one of this year’s dancers.

THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Since 1977, the massive, yearlong effort has supported 4,000 families and raised $180 million for Four Diamonds, which offsets the cost of treatment that insurance does not cover, as well as expenses that might affect the welfare of a child with cancer. The organization enables more than 30 specialty care providers to serve the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of patients and their families.

When it was announced in fall 2020 that the culminating dance marathon would be virtual in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Donna Rhodes, Mont Alto’s THON adviser, said Penn State’s THON groups understood that the health of child cancer patients and the dancers had to be paramount, but they also were disappointed.

“Our hearts are very saddened by it,” Rhodes said of not having THON in its traditional form, an event where pediatric patients “forget they’re sick, they forget what they’ve dealt with” for one weekend. But the focus at Mont Alto immediately shifted to making it as special as possible.

“We can’t focus on what we can’t do,” Rhodes said.

A committee chose the dancers after poring over applications and interviewing the candidates. All of them, described by Buller at various times as “fantastic,” “awesome” and “phenomenal,” expressed a passion for THON. They are:

  • Sarah McElwain, 20, a junior nursing major from Walkersville, Maryland
  • Audrey Glassmyer, 22, a senior nursing major from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania
  • Tyler Shannon, 19, a sophomore biological engineering major from Biglerville, Pennsylvania

A Zoom dinner with THON members and dancers will replace the traditional meal out the night before the dancing begins. The local THON club, which is about 80 members strong, is also hoping to organize an on-campus parade during which the four dancers will walk or ride on a route along which people can safely distance themselves while cheering for them.

“We really want to celebrate them in the best way we can,” Buller said. “Everybody’s full-steam ahead with everything.”

This year, dancers don’t have to be on their feet for 46 hours like they typically do, something the organizers are changing to ensure no one’s immune system is compromised, Rhodes said.

“As you dance, your body goes through a battle, physically and mentally,” said Buller. “That which participants get a small sample of what a child fighting cancer feels like.” 

THON weekend typically includes live performances from various artists. This year, there are hopes of having musicians perform virtually, Buller said, but regardless, tunes will be provided throughout the day. A playlist for the Mont Alto dance group is being created, and participants also can listen to whatever music motivates them to keep moving.

The Penn State Mont Alto THON group hopes to raise $20,000 for Four Diamonds, said Buller, who danced at THON in 2019. While some major fundraisers such as Gettysburg Rocks – a biannual music festival featuring bands performing across multiple venues in the Gettysburg area – were canceled due to COVID-19, online efforts have generated financial support.

For instance, a virtual THON 5K raised more than $1,100, Rhodes said.

During the 46-hour Zoom in February, students, faculty and community members will have opportunities to hop on and demonstrate their support for the dancers. People are being encouraged to send inspirational messages via social media throughout the weekend.

“It is still going to be the grand finale,” Buller said of the dance marathon that concludes a year of fundraising. “It definitely will be a fantastic experience.”

To make a donation for THON, go to

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