Dancing for 'a wonderful cause': Hope Express runners jump-start Thon at Penn State

bmilazzo@centredaly.comFebruary 21, 2014 

— Runners on three Hope Express teams busted through homemade signs by supporters on Park Avenue that said “Thank you Team Hope.”

It was all laughs and tears — and sweat — as those 54 runners from across the region kicked off the first day of the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon on Friday night.

As the runners made it into State College, supporters on Park Avenue created an arch with their arms.

Penn State students, community supporters and those involved with Thon welcomed the runners with signs, high fives, hugs and more.

Amanda Sayer and Becky Oliver, both 2013 Penn State graduates, said that after four years of participating in Thon, they wanted to keep their participation going.

“It’s just being an integral part of Thon and giving back to such a wonderful cause,” Sayer said. “We’re here to support the runners in all ways necessary.”

The groups of runners made the 135-mile overnight run from Penn State Hershey Medical Center to the Bryce Jordan Center. Each participant took turns running three miles at a time, until they made it to State College.

The run was created in 2007 as a way to bridge the gap between the medical center and the dancers at Thon, while raising more money for the Four Diamonds Fund, which financially helps families affected by pediatric cancer.

The runners who participated faced rain and sleet Friday morning, but the weather improved throughout the day.

“It was surprisingly nice,” said first-time runner and 2006 Penn State graduate Sarah Leopold, of Harrisburg. “Even if it wasn’t, being a part of this is all worth it.”

Leopold got involved for the first time this year after moving back to the area from Florida.

“I just remember that Thon was such a huge part of my life in school that when I graduated and came back here, I wanted to find a way to get involved again,” Leopold said.

Last year, while running in a half marathon, she met a man who encouraged her to get involved with the Hope Express, Leopold said.

“It was perfect,” she said. “I’ve seen the spectrum on both ends of knowing someone who beat cancer and knowing others who were defeated by it, but we come together to spread awareness and fight for them.”

Among the runners this year were five Centre County residents, including two Four Diamond moms — Jodie Potter, of Philipsburg, mother of Corban Potter, 4; and Renee Messina, of State College, mom to Isabella, 12. On Dec. 4, 2011, Corban was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. In 2003, Isabella, was diagnosed with leukemia.

For part of the race, Leopold was running partners with Messina, and said the experience was “surreal.”

“It seems like something I could have only imagined,” Leopold said. “To be surrounded by such amazing people who aim to put a positive spin on something that can be such a bummer, is really incredible.”

By 3 p.m. Friday, the Hope Express teams arrived at the Nittany Lion Inn, where they took a short break, and then made their last mile to the Jordan Center with a group of Penn State student-athletes and members of the ROTC program.

Upon their arrival, at least an estimated 15,000 people stood on the floor and in the stands to dance, cheer and congratulate the organization.

The crowd chanted “FTK,” which stands for “for the kids,” while holding up their hands in the shape of a diamond, which represented the Four Diamonds Fund.

Jim Boyle, of the Philadelphia area, is a Penn State freshman participating in his first Thon.

Boyle said he has his brother to thank for getting him involved.

“I didn’t think I really had the time to do it, but he just said, ‘You’ll regret it if you don’t,’ ” Boyle said. He is part of the rules and regulations committee.

This year, it hit home for him. Boyle said that last night, he got news that his neighbor had passed away from cancer.

“It’s something that affects everyone in some way,” Boyle said. “This is probably one of the greatest events going on and one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of.”

The doors opened to the public around 4 p.m. Friday, and Thon kicked off at 6 p.m.

Media relations spokesman Nick Lello said the night went smoothly, as both guests and organizers used the new digital line management system to get into the facility.

“Everything went according to plan,” Lello said. “We came up with this new system that benefits everyone, so it’s organized and less chaotic.”

Guests were given a coded bracelet that gave them a place and number on a digital queue. Spectators were able to enter the Jordan Center once their number was announced, and were able to wait in a place convenient for them, instead of outside the arena.

Once that number was announced, the person was be able to enter the Jordan Center though Gate A.

This is a system that will be used for the remainder of the weekend.

On Saturday, keynote speaker Jay Paterno will take the stage around 3:15 p.m.

For more information, visit www.thon.org.

Britney Milazzo can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter @M11azzo.

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