Mike DePaul took sixth-grader Victoria Smith by her wheelchair and gave her a spin on the dance floor.
For a few hours on Friday night, DePaul and more than two dozen others from the Penn State Atlas club made the Mount Nittany Middle School student the center of attention during State College Mini-Thon at Park Forest Middle School.
Victoria was among about a dozen local Four Diamonds Fund children and their families, and about 300 State College-area middle school students who helped run — and dance — at the event.
The goal at the sixth annual mini-Thon was to raise awareness about pediatric cancer and money for the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, which financially helps families of those children battling cancer.
Last year, the event raised $45,000. This year, they hoped to exceed that figure, said Lynn Mona, Park Forest eighth-grade math teacher. In 2012, about $34,000 was raised, and the year before that, fundraising efforts totaled around $30,000, Mona said.
“You so often hear about kids this age doing some negative things, but here is something so many teens have come together to do all year and it’s so inspiring,” Mona said. “What I find the most inspiring is the families of the kids who say their son or daughter no longer looks at their diagnosis or going to the hospital a bad thing anymore because of events like Thon and mini-Thon.”
This was the first year the two State College middle schools joined forces for one event. The dance marathon kicked off at 5 p.m. Friday and lasted until midnight.
According to Penn State Hershey Medical Center, mini-Thon events are celebrated around the commonwealth and modeled after the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon.
During the 2012-13 school year, with more than 130 schools and 25,000 student participants, mini-Thons have raised more than $2.1 million for Four Diamonds, the report said.
As bright white lights shifted to colored lights like that from a disco, the music cranked and hundreds of kids busted a move. Some chose to freestyle dance, others did a choreographed line dance and others came by just to dance with Four Diamonds children.
Even university and community supporters participated.
For the Atlas club, it was all about supporting the first youth the group ever adopted: Victoria, 12 — a six-year cancer survivor.
The Atlas club is an on-campus special interest group that solely benefits Thon. Last year, Atlas raised $390,366.96, making it Thon’s top fundraising organization for the fourth year in a row, said member Meghan Riegel.
Stephanie Smith said that her daughter was born with medical issues. After Victoria’s third birthday in 2005, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. But after years of treatment, she was cancer-free in 2008.
Smith said that Victoria, however, is still evaluated during regular checkups.
The Four Diamonds Fund provided the family with food and gas vouchers — and a sense of relief.
“When a parent or family goes through something like this, there is already a huge weight on our shoulders, but having the fund’s help lifted some of that off,” Smith said.
Smith encourages any family going through a similar situation to accept any help that is offered, including the chance to be a part of support groups and Thon activities.
“It’s fun and we’re surrounded by a great support system that I’ve just about adopted as my own, and are the closest thing to brothers and sisters to her,” Smith said about the Atlas club members. “It amazes me to see college kids do this, and now to see middle schoolers do it is even more overwhelming.”
Park Forest eighth-grade students Carrie Little, 14, and Emma Wilcock, 13, said they did their part to help raise money by going canning at State High football games and other school events. They were also a part of a dodge ball tournament that raised about $1,000. Classmate Jacob Krantweiss, 14, even made paracord bracelets and sold them each for a dollar.
“It’s most rewarding when you can be involved in an event like this and bring a smile to their faces,” Carrie said.
Emma said she urges all her fellow students to get involved next year if they weren’t a part of mini-Thon this year.
Mona said that teachers, students and other organizers are already thinking of new activities to enhance next year’s event, which would include a luminary activity to remember and honor all those affected by cancer.
“It’s a never-ending process and one that gives back in a big way,” she said.