Penn State Wilkes-Barre dancers prepare for THON

One of this year’s dancers is a childhood cancer survivor
A combined image of two people, each making a diamond symbol with their hands.

Gabriela Gronkowski and Andrew Zimmerman are Penn State Wilkes-Barre's THON dancers this year.

Credit: Penn State

DALLAS, Pa. — Penn State Wilkes-Barre students Gabriela Gronkowski and Andrew Zimmerman are getting ready to dance the night away — two nights, to be exact, with a lot of daytime in between. Gronkowski, a junior corporate communications major, and Zimmerman, a junior majoring in information technology, are dancers for this year’s THON, a 46-hour dance marathon that benefits children fighting cancer. 

This year’s event will be held Feb. 16-18 in the Bryce Jordan Center at University Park. Gronkowski and Zimmerman — who is a cancer survivor himself — will join students from other Penn State campuses to stay awake and on their feet for the entire 46 hours to support Four Diamonds at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital. THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Since its start in 1973, THON has raised more than $200 million to support Four Diamonds, which aims to conquer childhood cancer by assisting children and their families through superior care, comprehensive support and innovative research.

Gronkowski and Zimmerman have both been involved with THON since their first year at Penn State Wilkes-Barre and have attended the event in the past, but this will be their first time dancing there.

“When I was 15, I was diagnosed with acinic cell carcinoma. I was fortunate that it was found early,” Zimmerman said. “While I was in the hospital for treatments, seeing all those other families at the hospital — some with kids much younger than me — made me know I wanted to help out in the fight against cancer as much as I could. I saw what they went through firsthand and I would have given anything in those moments to trade places with them.”

After a year of radiation, Zimmerman’s doctors told him his cancer was in remission and he wouldn’t need chemotherapy. He has received clear annual screenings for the last five years and has been told he will likely only need them for one or two more years.

“I like what THON represents. Since it’s raising money for these kids, I want to do it,” Zimmerman said. “Standing for 46 hours is nothing compared to what they’re going through.”

Gronkowski was inspired to join by her sister-in-law Nicole Cerullo, a Penn State Wilkes-Barre alumna who previously danced at THON, in addition to other family members who have battled cancer.

“THON has a special place in my heart due to my family having a history of cancer,” said Gronkowski, who serves as primary chair for Penn State Wilkes-Barre Benefitting THON. “I’ve seen my family go through the struggles of cancer and it’s heartbreaking to know children go through that. I also know my little bit of pain while dancing isn’t anything compared to what they are going through. They are very strong kids.”

The Wilkes-Barre THON chapter meets every week throughout the year and plans various fundraisers to raise money and awareness of THON and its mission. This year’s fundraisers have included an apparel sale featuring unofficial campus mascots Bear and Holly, a McDonald’s french fry fundraiser, a blood drive in conjunction with the American Red Cross, a lollipop sale at Arts at Hayfield’s summer and holiday festivals, and fundraisers with Texas Roadhouse and Boscov’s, with a portion of sales being donated to THON.

Based on its fundraising from last year, the group received several chances to be put in a lottery for a dancer spot and was offered two spots at this year’s event. Members of Penn State Wilkes-Barre Benefitting THON who wanted to be a dancer submitted a short description of why they wanted to dance, and the group voted on who its two dancers would be.

“I have always been passionate about raising money for any type of cancer. I want to make sure to do what I can to help these kids and their parents,” Gronkowski said. “Being a dancer means I’m continuing a legacy from my sister-in-law, but also that I am doing something to support the kids. All of us at THON want to help the parents not have to worry about the bills that go along with cancer.”

For Zimmerman, being selected as a dancer was especially meaningful.

“It is one of the greatest feelings I’ve had in a while, knowing I will be able to help in this way,” he said. “After going through cancer firsthand and seeing what it is like on a personal level, I know what the kids have to go through. It means so much to me to be able to support them.”

To prepare for the 46-hour-long event, both dancers are getting their bodies as well as their minds ready.

“I was working overnight shifts for a while last semester, preparing myself to stay up for the whole time,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve also been going to the gym and doing more cardio to get used to being on my feet for long periods of time.”

Gronkowski said, “I’m working out a lot, eating healthier and cutting out caffeine since dancers aren’t allowed to have any caffeine during THON. I’m drinking lots of water, doing schoolwork ahead of time and trying to get my body used to what’s going to happen during THON weekend. I will also try to get full nights of sleep in the week leading up to THON.”

Both dancers expect the experience to be “difficult but rewarding,” in Gronkowski’s words.

“I am excited to overcome everything. I’ve heard it’s very emotional and very rewarding once you finish,” she said. “The kids are on the floor [where we’re dancing] and it will mean a lot to see the kids we’re helping. I can’t stress enough how strong those kids are. They keep a smile on their face and are so happy to be supported and around people who care.”

Zimmerman said, “While the beginning is very fun, I’m looking forward to the end because it means we will see all the kids we’re supporting then, and that’s what we’re there for. During the last few hours, their stories are shared and the mood becomes a lot more somber. We’ll see stories of a family going through the journey and kids who have been supported by THON and are healthy now, but also children who didn’t make it. This is to show people why we’re doing this and to encourage us to keep going.”

While THON is going on, Gronkowski and Zimmerman will have in-person support from other members of Penn State Wilkes-Barre’s THON chapter and Gronkowski’s mother, aunt and sister-in-law. They also will receive special mail throughout the event sent in advance by family members and friends, including members of the Penn State Wilkes-Barre community, who were encouraged to submit messages at one of seven locations on campus.

“I’ve met so many wonderful people who are part of the THON community throughout the past few years. This community that raises money for the kids goes so far. It’s heartwarming to know that people will do anything they can to help the kids,” Gronkowski said.

Penn State Wilkes-Barre’s THON organization aims to raise $15,000 to contribute to the Four Diamonds Fund. To donate to their efforts, visit the campus DonorDrive page.