THON: Ephrata family gives back

By on February 17, 2016
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Photo provided by Truex family and Penn State THON committee Tyler slapping hands at the THON family carnival a few years ago

Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center has been home to athletic events, pep rallies and football games, but the venue will be jam packed with a different kind of crowd this weekend. Over 700 dancers representing 600-plus student organizations will participate in the annual THON, a 46-hour-long dance marathon that kicks off Friday.

Organized in 1973 by a group of students, looking for a way to give back to the community, the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic dance marathon has evolved into the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. According to its website, in 1977 the THON named the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital as its sole beneficiary. Since then the no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon has raised over $127 million for the Four Diamonds Fund for patient care, treatment and research. The fund has provided assistance to over 3,600 children and families in their fight against childhood cancer. Last year’s event raised $13 million, and 96 percent of the funds were donated directly to the Four Diamonds Fund.

This year’s theme is “Believe Beyond Boundaries.” Over 15,000 student volunteers have donated over five million hours of their time in the past seven months in preparation for the weekend’s activities.

Haley Staub, a Penn State student serving as public relations captain for this year’s event, said that she grew up in a “Penn State family.” She attended her first THON as a mini-THON event at her middle school.

“That year from the stands I made it my personal goal to someday make it down onto the floor, Staub said. “When it came down to my college decision, THON became my reason to attend Penn State. I have attended THON every year since eighth grade and THON has provided an opportunity that can’t be rivaled by any other school. As I continue to become more involved with this cause each and every year, my passion for this cause and for these Four Diamonds families only continues to grow. “

Tyler on  the  shoulders  of  their  organization’s dancer, Ryan Estock.

Tyler on the shoulders of their organization’s dancer, Ryan Estock.

The Truex family, Ephrata, is one of those families, and they’ll be at THON lending their support. Ray and Jennifer Truex explained that their lives were “turned upside down” eight years ago when their then three-year-old son Tyler was diagnosed with pediatric cancer in the form of ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia). Jennifer explained that Tyler was pale and limping and their doctor uncovered the cancer after doing a blood test in April 2008.

“It was a little hard to take it in. We didn’t know what to expect, but the doctor had already called Hershey (Children’s Hospital) and they were ready for us,” she recalled, “The staff were wonderful. They’re caring and they talked to us in terms we could understand.”

“Your life suddenly changes and becomes all about getting your child well. We had a lot of support from our family. Friends, co-workers and church members,” Ray added.

Jennifer said that the family, which also includes sons Ray, who is now 13-years-old, and Gabe who is now 7-years-old, was told about the Four Diamonds Fund by a social worker.

“{With the help of Four Diamonds Fund} we could focus on our child and not worry about where the money would come from for treatment, medications and numerous trips to Hershey,” Ray stressed.

Tyler’s cancer treatment lasted about three years. Jennifer said that his last treatment was June 2011, and the next day he went on a Make-A-Wish trip. However he had a relapse a few months later, and began treatment again in the fall of 2011. Tyler completed treatment for his second bout of cancer in January 2014. He continues to have checkups every three months, but so far, he’s cancer-free.

Having benefited from the Four Diamonds Fund themselves, the family has been avid supporters since 2009. Ray said that there are a lot of ways to give back to the organization that helped his family at such a critical time.

“In some ways we’re paying it forward for families who are about to hear the life altering words that we did when Tyler was diagnosed,” he said.

Tyler and his family members have attended or spoken at a number of the Mini-THONs held at area middle and high schools. His brother, Ray, spoke at Ephrata Middle School’s Mini-THON last year, and is chair of this year’s event. A runner, Ray Truex had participated in several Relays for Life, and this week he will also be part of a special relay team carrying letters of support from pediatric cancer patients at Hershey Children’s Hospital to the Bryce Jordan Center for THON. He said that the relay was organized a couple of years ago by the father of a pediatric cancer patient who is a runner.

“It not only brings awareness to pediatric cancer, but it delivers letters of support” Ray said.

The Truex family has also been part of THON for several years.

“It’s really a celebration of life,” Jennifer said of the event. Her husband, Ray, described Bryce Jordan Center as being “packed to the gills.”

“It’s better every year, and it’s humbling to see so many students dancing to make a difference for families like ours,” he said.

The family’s not only attended the event and related their story to the student dancers, but they also work with one of the groups on campus to sponsor some of the dancers. This year Tyler helped put together goodie bags for three dancers they’re sponsoring.

“We’ve developed relationships with the dancers, and some of them have visited us here at home. We get to show our appreciation for what they do and they have an opportunity to interact with families whose lives they’ve touched by their efforts at THON,” Jennifer said.

The Truex children have their own take on THON, which their father said is “basically a 46-hour party and the best weekend a kid could want.”

For Tyler the best thing about THON is being on the floor with all the dancers and “having fun.” For Gabe, it’s participating in the water battles-water balloons, water guns, etc. Unfortunately their brother Ray wasn’t available to share his thoughts, but he will be at THON this weekend with the rest of the family.

THON activities include a pep rally with hundreds of student athletes, games and fun. It also features the Final Four Hours during which Four Diamonds families tell their stories and the final fundraising total is revealed.

“At Penn State, we THON so that no family ever has to see a medical bill. We THON so that even for just 46 hours, kids can forget about the treatment they are going through and enjoy being kids. We THON so that one day no parent will ever have to hear the words ‘your child has cancer.’ We THON for the future when we will dance in celebration. We THON For The Kids,” Staub said.

Rochelle Shenk is a correspondent for the Ephrata Review. She welcomes your comments and questions at RAASHENK@aol.com.

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