THON documentary shows ‘Why We Dance’

By on September 26, 2012

By: TIFFANY WOODALL Review Staff twoodall.eph@lnpnews.com, Staff Writer

Years ago two producers at Penn State Public Broadcasting had an idea: document the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, a philanthropy that’s not only a major source of Penn State pride, but is also a major source of funding for its sole beneficiary, The Four Diamonds Fund.

Executive Producer Jeff Hughes and Producer/Director Cole Cullen, creators of the 2008 documentary "Making the Blue Band," teamed up once again to tell another Penn State story, the story of THON.

"We knew of the existence of THON, but I think we really only thought of it as this two-day thing they did in February," said Hughes. "We didn’t know of the need for that funding, the need for the support of families who were struggling with childhood cancer. We wanted to create a program that talked about all those things."

And that’s exactly what they did. "Why We Dance: The Story of THON" features families battling pediatric cancer, student volunteers raising awareness and funds year-round to provide financial and emotional support for those families, medical personnel caring for those families and researchers seeking cures for those families.

Akron residents Kevin and Deanna Rupp, both faculty members at Ephrata Middle School, lost their daughter, Felicia, to cancer in 1998. Cullen caught up with them at the EMS MiniTHON in April.

"We all need to take a stand against childhood cancer because ultimately cancer is stealing so much from everyone’s future," the Rupps said. "Since we have lost a child to cancer and known so many other children who have died of cancer, it is our goal to do whatever we can to get the word out there about these incredible children who are fighting cancer."

Kevin and Deanna have been involved in THON for more than a decade, but there are new families introduced to THON and The Four Diamonds Fund each year. Cullen captured the emotions of one such family who invited cameras into their world six weeks after 13-year-old Bryce Carter was diagnosed with cancer.

"They were so open and willing to share everything with us, it really helped with the story telling," said Cullen. "The coolest part, I thought, was that we followed him (Bryce) to his last chemotherapy treatment."

The documentary travels from the first event of THON season, Harvest Day, to miniTHONs happening throughout Pennsylvania elementary, middle and high schools, to Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital and, of course, to the Bryce Jordan Center for THON weekend. At each stop, viewers get a glimpse of the relationship between Penn State students and Four Diamonds families, a bond that fuels the mission of THON.

Each year after 700 dancers stand sleepless for 46 hours, the THON overall committee, a group of 14 leaders in the THON community, display the total amount of money raised throughout that year. Silence creeps into the building, a packed-to-capacity audience holding its breath during this pinnacle moment. And then, screams. Cameras flash like paparazzi to grab the record-breaking total as witnesses jump, hug, high-five and cry tears of extreme joy.

Rewind back to hour 42 of the event, and Cullen is filming a group of five individuals, the only five people among thousands who will know the $10.6 million fundraising total for THON 2012 before it’s revealed on stage.

"They gather around a laptop and they all push enter at the same time," said Cullen. "It’s a pretty powerful moment in the show."

Hughes anticipates more of those moments in years to come.

"My hope is that we could play a part in them raising 12 or 15 million dollars in the future, just by helping them tell their story," he said.

Cullen didn’t consider this assignment work. He explained that "meeting the families and seeing these families go through, or families that had gone through what they did, but still just be awesome people on the other end, is just inspiring. I totally understand now why the students do what they do."

In Hughes’ opinion, "the biggest compliment we have received is that the documentary captures the ‘it’ that you can’t explain."

The Rupps understand first-hand, and they continue to honor the memory of their daughter by supporting THON.

"Felicia loved THON with all her heart," they said. "One day she proclaimed that she loved THON more than Christmas morning. She was eight or nine years old at the time, and I can’t imagine a greater endorsement than that."

"Why We Dance: The Story of THON" premieres Thursday night at 9 p.m. on WITF Harrisburg. The documentary is available to watch and the DVD is available to purchase online at wpsu.org. More THON, page A19

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