02/21/2012 11:57 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

THON Through the Years

Each year, more than 15,000 student volunteers and 700 dancers stand on their feet for 46 hours to show their love and support for the families of The Four Diamonds Fund. All of these dancers and volunteers share the same passion: to one day conquer pediatric cancer.

This Feb. 17-19, the Penn State community and The Four Diamonds families and staff returned to the Bryce Jordan Center to celebrate THON's 40th anniversary. Since it's pairing with The Four Diamonds Fund in 1977, the Penn State Dance Marathon has donated more than $78 million to support the families and researchers at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

But THON is more than just a 46 hour dance marathon. THON is a year-long initiative coordinated by the passionate students at the Pennsylvania State University. Their mission is to provide "outstanding emotional and financial support to the children, families, researchers and staff of The Four Diamonds Fund." As the mission states, the emotional support is even more important to the students and the families than the monetary value that is raised every year. THON is about building lasting relationships with people that need it most, and it has continued to do so since it began 40 years ago.

The Penn State Community saw it's very first THON Feb. 2-4, 1973 in the HUB Ballroom, a much smaller location than it's current home. It started when former IFC President Bill Lear ('72-'73) proposed a Dance Marathon to raise money for a worthwhile cause, but no one ever imagined that it would grow into the largest active student-run philanthropy in the world. That year only 78 dancers participated in what used to be a competition to see who can stay awake and stand on their feet for 30 hours. By the end of the weekend, there were 17 couples still standing.

Before pairing with The Four Diamonds Fund, THON donated its proceeds to the Butler County Association for Retarded Children. The Penn State students and volunteers were able to raise a total of $2,000 in 1973 -- a number which has grown exponentially each year since. In its second year, THON was increased to 48 hours and raised a total of $10,825, which was donated to the American Heart Association in 1974. Two more organizations saw donations from THON -- the Easter Seals Society in 1975 and the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1976. 1976 also established an important precedent for the future: a theme. The first theme in 1976 was "Dance For Those Who Can't" and this created a unifying cause for dancers to participate under together and themes have been around ever since.

At the same time that the THON was trying to find it's footing as a philanthropy, another organization was just starting out as well. The Four Diamonds Fund was started by Charles and Irma Millard at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Children's Hospital in honor of their son, Christopher, who had passed away at the age of 14 after losing his battle to pediatric cancer. The Four Diamonds Fund's goal is to essentially pick up where insurance leaves off and cover any expenses that families with children suffering from pediatric cancer may incur. They provide for things as large as research and a medical team to treat the children, to something as small as the families' gas costs and meals. The fund itself draws it's name from a story Christopher had written before he died in which a knight must find four diamonds in order to gain his freedom; Courage, Wisdom, Honesty, and Strength. These are the qualities that Christopher believed were necessary to overcome cancer.

Although it was in 1977 that THON saw bleachers erected in the HUB to accommodate the large audiences that supported the dancers for the duration of the event, even greater changes happened during 1979. The 1979 fundraising year saw many changes happening to THON. The first Road to THON Celebration was held during this year. The Road to THON Celebration a dinner and award banquet for participants was held to kick off the THON season. THON also found its new home in the Mary Beaver White building due to ever increasing capacity demands. This was also the year when competition between dancers was eliminated and all were united with one goal - to stand as long as possible against cancer. An astounding 286 dancers participated and $72,132 was raised for The Four Diamonds Fund.

From that point on THON's achievements and growth increased astoundingly each year. The marathon broke six figures with its total in 1983 when $131,000 was raised and in 1984, THON was recognized as the largest student run philanthropy of it's kind. The year of 1988 was an important year in that the affectionate nickname of the Dance Marathon, "THON" was adopted, and is still known as such to this day.

THON's 20th Anniversary occurred during 1992 and it was a momentous occasion: it was the first time that THON raised over $1 million, and it has never looked back. The outstanding growth continued and just six years later in 1998, the $2 million mark was broken for the first time. At the turn of the millennium THON found a new home once again, this time on west campus in Rec Hall in 1999. That same year, $5 million was pledged to the Four Diamonds Fund to be raised over the next five years. As it turned out, the pledge would be fulfilled within just three years, reaching the pledged amount in 2001.

Since then, THON has grown above and beyond to become much more than anyone could have ever imagined, consisting of more than 700 dancers, 300 Captains, 3,300 Committee members, 15,000 student volunteers, 46 hours, and more than $78 million for the kids. THON has become one single family with one single passion to never give up the fight. Cancer doesn't stop, and neither will we.

THON 2012 is a year to cherish forever, as we remember 40 years of honesty, wisdom, courage, and strength. The theme this year was Brighten Every Journey, which harkens back to the journeys past, support for the current journeys, and hope for the journeys of the future. The theme is not simply a conglomeration of words to give distinction to a year; it is lived and embodied by everyone in the THON Community. THON has come so far in the battle against pediatric cancer, yet the battle is not over. The journey won't ever stop until we find a cure. But, one day, we are sure that we will be able to dance in celebration.