YORK, Pa. — It was a little before her fourth birthday that Thalia Splawn, now 20, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Just five years later, Splawn was in remission, and in 2011 was declared cancer-free. Splawn, along with two other Penn State York students, Casey Dierdorff, 20, and Paulina Martinez, also 20, all from York, Pennsylvania, will represent their campus in the fight against pediatric cancer at The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, affectionately known as THON, Feb. 16-18 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Dierdorff, Martinez and Splawn, along with more than 700 other dancers, won’t be sitting or sleeping for the entire weekend. In fact, the dancers will be on their feet for 46 hours to raise funds to support innovative and sustainable pediatric cancer research at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital. Since pairing in 1977, THON has raised more than $147 million for the Four Diamonds Fund, its sole beneficiary. The Four Diamonds fills in the funding gaps that insurance leaves for the patients it serves, enabling families to focus on caring for their children. This year’s event begins at 6 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 16, at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pennsylvania, and ends 46 hours later, at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18.
The three dancers from the York campus were selected to represent Penn State York Benefiting THON, based on a variety of criteria, including the number of spirit points earned since last September through participation in fundraising and other activities for THON. THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, and the weekend dance marathon is the culmination of a yearlong fundraising effort. This year’s theme at THON is “Discovering Tomorrow’s Wonder.”
Fundraising efforts for the campus THON committee over the past year included one canning weekend (soliciting donations) at several locations in and around the York area, the "Poker with Jimmy" poker tournament hosted by cancer survivor Jimmy Clark, sponsoring a blood drive with the American Red Cross, a spaghetti dinner, and Paw Search, a talent and variety show.
Dierdorff, a sophomore at Penn State York majoring in psychology, and Martinez, a sophomore majoring in forensic science, have led the group throughout the year with the help of other student captains, and members interested in finding a cure for pediatric cancer.
In addition to raising money, THON enables campus students to raise spirits by sponsoring families dealing with cancer. Members of York’s THON Committee have provided encouragement to the families. The York campus sponsors Autumn Foller, 14, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012 and is now in remission, and Ava Hagens, 10, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in 2009 and is also in remission.
“I also want to dance for people like myself who beat cancer, the ones who didn’t make it, and everyone fighting right now.”
— Thalia Splawn, Penn State York student and cancer survivor
Penn State York Benefiting THON has also added another family to support. James Stone, now 28, was diagnosed with ALL when he was 3-years-old. He underwent four years of chemotherapy at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center and has been in remission since he was 7. Stone has been attending THON since 1995, and the weekend isn't an event to him, it is family and love. Married with a 4-year-old daughter, Stone wants to be sure his daughter knows all about THON and participates in the weekend. The York THON group will meet and spend time with the Stone family for the first time at THON 2018. The Stone family lives in Myerstown, Pennsylvania.
All three of York’s THON families are true examples of how THON can make a difference in lives of children fighting cancer, and are examples of why students dance to find a cure.
Students involved in THON met weekly throughout the year and will make the trip to University Park to cheer on York’s dancers and all those who are participating For The Kids (FTK) during the 46-hour event.
All three York dancers are excited about spending time with the children and their families at THON, their own family members, and members of the campus organization.
Splawn, a junior at Penn State York majoring in human development and family studies (HD FS), is dancing at THON to give back to all those who danced for her.
“I also want to dance for people like myself who beat cancer, the ones who didn’t make it, and everyone fighting right now,” said Splawn.
Since Splawn was so young when she was in treatment, she doesn’t remember much about the experience except that she was at the hospital a lot and that a variety of tests were done.
“I don’t have a lot of bad memories,” she said. “Good memories when I was in the hospital and had a lot of family there to support me and spend time with me,” she said.
Her good memories also include being introduced to THON, her time as a THON child with Boulevard, an organization in State College, and now being a part of such a great cause.
This is Splawn's second year as a member of the York THON group and she served as the family relations captain, along with Sierra Sipe, keeping in touch with York’s THON families, and updating the group on their activities.
Splawn is looking forward to being around all the positive people at THON and seeing things from a dancer perspective rather than as a THON child. To prepare for the big weekend Splawn has maintained a healthy diet by limiting carbohydrates and caffeine, and has been working out more often. Her concerns are being on her feet for so long, and staying hydrated.
In any case, she is looking forward to representing the campus at THON, along with her fellow dancers.
Dierdorff, a sophomore majoring in psychology, is dancing at THON to show her support for children battling cancer and to honor York’s THON families.
“I also want to honor Maddie Hill and Ayden Koller, who were taken at a young age by this awful disease,” she said. “I want to honor all of the Four Diamonds children who I have met in my life, and who have touched my heart. The list seems endless.”
This is Dierdorff’s second year as part of the York THON group and she is serving as the primary chair in addition to dancing. In her leadership role, she has been responsible for keeping the organization on track, and holding regular meeting with the group. Last year she served as treasurer for the York group. Dierdorff learned about THON as a child when she volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House in Hershey, where the families of children in treatment at Hershey Medical Center stay.
Dierdorff is looking forward to meeting all of the other dancers and Four Diamond families. She is confident that her motivation to continue dancing will come through her interaction with families and sharing their stories. To prepare for THON she has been trying to stand for longer durations of time and has been walking, dancing, and exercising more. Her biggest concern about completing THON is staying awake and standing for 46 hours, something she is not accustomed to doing.
Martinez, a sophomore majoring in forensic science, is dancing at THON because she wants to give back and help those children who are battling cancer.
“Dancing at THON is a once in a lifetime experience. I can’t say that my life has been perfect but I am lucky enough to be healthy and not experience what our THON children have been through,” said Martinez. “I want to help those children to feel that they will get better to see tomorrow. I know this is an experience I will never forget.”
This is Martinez’s second year as part of the York THON group and she is serving as the co-chair of the group in addition to being a dancer. She has been involved with a variety of fundraising activities, and helped the primary chair throughout the year. Martinez heard about THON when she attended an open house at Penn State York.
She too is eating healthier to prepare for THON. She has cut out soda, limited her caffeine intake, is eating fewer sweets, and eating more vegetables. Like her fellow dancers, she is exercising more regularly to strengthen her legs and body.
Martinez is looking forward to THON Weekend and all the fun that will happen among the students and the interaction with THON children and their families. Her biggest concern about completing THON is all the emotions she will be feeling as well as how her body will react with no sleep and not being able to sit down.
All three dancers have family members attending THON to support them, in addition to the York THON members, THON families, other dancers, and all those spectators at the big dance.
Donations for THON 2018 in support of the York’s three dancers can still be made. Donations made to Penn State York Benefiting York THON will be credited to the campus and then added to the final total at University Park. Donors may give online here. Checks in support of THON should be made payable to: "Penn State Dance Marathon" or THON, and sent to Penn State York, 1031 Edgecomb Ave., York, PA 17403, no later than Feb. 15. Please be sure to note "York, Org. 170" in the memo line of the check.
THON is the world’s largest student-run philanthropy, engaging more than 16,500 students and 25,000 alumni in the fight against childhood cancer. THON’s yearlong fundraising and awareness campaign culminates in a 46-hour no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon every February. Since 1977, THON has donated more than $147 million to Four Diamonds at Penn State Children’s Hospital, funding comprehensive care and critical research.