STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State students willing to stay on their feet 46 straight hours to raise money for pediatric cancer research point to a 7-year-old girl with short brown hair and a shy smile as a beacon of inspiration.
Nine months into remission from leukemia, Emily Whitehead was looking forward to her first trip back to the return to the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon in two years.
THON, as it's more commonly known, is billed as the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, raising money for the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital. Students have raised more than $89 million over almost three dozen years, including a record $10.89 million last year alone.
"That was part of what we talked about when she was sick, to keep fighting," said Emily's father, Tom Whitehead, said of the goal of returning to THON. "It's really overwhelming. It's our favorite weekend of the year."
As it stretched into its 19th hour Saturday afternoon, Tom Whitehead, of Philipsburg, said his family will be forever grateful to the 710 dancers and an army of volunteers. The Four Diamonds Fund helped the family pay for medical bills, as well as meals and hotel stays when Emily was being treated at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
It was there, last April, that Emily became the first pediatric patient to be undergo an experimental treatment— a type of T cell therapy. Emily became critically ill from side effects but recovered and her cancer has been in remission.
Considered a medical success story, Emily wasn't able to attend THON last year — so she has some catching up to do with her much older Penn State friends.
Just don't expect her to spend all weekend dancing. When asked to divulge her favorite part of being back at the Jordan Center, Emily shyly said in front of reporters at a press conference, "The squirt gun fights."
The dance marathon, which ends Sunday at 4 p.m., resembles a 46-hour party. Participants aren't actually dancing the entire time — but they can't sit and they definitely can't sleep.
They get plenty of encouragement, though. On Saturday, former assistant football coach Jay Paterno was among those who took the microphone and gave a pep talk.
"All of the THON kids, and those families, when you battle against pediatric cancer," he said, "know that we are with you every step of the way."
Paterno, the son of the late former coach Joe Paterno, told the dancers to stand proud for Penn State, which for the last year has dealt with the fallout from a child sex-abuse scandal that cost the elder Paterno his job. Jay Paterno made reference to criticism students "have had to do deal with from people from other schools ... but don't you ever back down from the name Penn State."
Joe Paterno was fired in November 2011, days after former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child sex abuse charges. The school is still recovering from the resulting scandal.
Some students have said they were teased at times about attending Penn State because of the scandal, especially in the opening weeks and months of the turmoil.
"If you see what happens in this building, you won't back down from anybody," Paterno said. "Penn State is the students, it's the pride and it's what you do for others that makes us unique."
The dance marathon packs the Jordan Center, which has a capacity of more than 15,000. Sponsors supply food while local residents also contribute snacks. More than 300 Four Diamonds families were to attend this year, with patients playing games and encouraging dancers — who likewise do the same to the patients.
Current football coach Bill O'Brien and his players also hosted about 25 THON families for a Make-A-Wish event Saturday at the football building.
"This is the stuff that matters," defensive end Brad Bars said. "It's really encouraging to help these families out."