For 46 consecutive hours, there was no sitting — and definitely no sleeping — allowed on the dance floor at Penn State University’s Bryce Jordan Center.
“It is quite the physical exertion,” Bethel Park High School graduate Noah Gearhart acknowledged. “Many dancers do regard it as one of the most challenging but most rewarding experiences that they’ve ever had.”
Penn State’s annual dance marathon and related events, trademarked as THON, represent the world’s largest student-run philanthropy, with about 16,500 volunteers participating.
For 2022, Gearhart is serving as THON’s technology director during his senior year at the university. And his longtime friend Caleb Klemick, a Mt. Lebanon resident who graduated from Seton LaSalle High School, is heading the entertainment committee.
They will provide leadership for a culminating event that packs as many as 15,000 people into the university’s Bryce Jordan Center to raise money for Four Diamonds at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital, which has the mission of conquering childhood cancer by assisting children and their families through care, support and research.
Despite limitations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s THON brought in more than $10.6 million.
“I honestly did not come to Penn State with a lot of THON knowledge,” Gearhart said. “I had a very vague understanding of what it was. But freshman year, I was lucky enough to go to THON weekend and experience what it was like to be in the stands. And I was greatly moved by it.”
One of his friends was serving on the technology committee at the time, and Gearhart’s double major happens to be computer science and mathematics.
“A lot of the work that the technology committee does is related to that,” he said. “I knew I had to apply, because it was such a great way for me to use the things that I enjoy and apply them to such a great cause.”
Klemick, his classmate through eighth grade at Hillcrest Christian Academy in Bethel Park, has a similar viewpoint regarding entertainment.
“It fits well into my background,” he said. “I’ve had a lifelong passion for performing arts. I was really involved in theater and theater technology when I was at Seton LaSalle.”
At Penn State, he got a job at the historic Schwab Auditorium, assisting in preparing dance troupes and other performers for taking the stage with an audience-pleasing show.
“That’s kind of what I do now. I help other committees and other captains who have event ideas, and take their vision and turn it into something that we can produce at a THON event,” he said.
As entertainment director, Klemick said he oversees a committee of 26 captains and 50 other members, all focused on doing what it takes to help everyone “have an exciting time and keep wanting to come back to our events.”
Gearhart’s role is structured similarly.
“The technology committee assists all THON organizations and committees by providing software solutions and technical support to help further THON’s mission of conquering childhood cancer,” he said. “Our software provides vital functionality that enables THON to spread our mission, raise funds and host events.”
During a typical year, 50 or so events precede THON Weekend, helping to raise money and awareness of what Four Diamonds does.
“First and foremost, everything we do is for our families,” Gearhart said, “to make sure that they have a fun, engaging, safe, empowering environment in which to sort of forget about the stresses and the pressures of being a child with cancer or a member of a family with someone who does.”
At the Bryce Jordan Center, many of those families and their stories are featured as part of the 46 hours’ worth of nonstop activity presented on the main stage.
“We try to keep the entertainment on the stage as diverse as possible, to make sure there’s something for everyone,” Klemick said. “When there are not live events going on, there are deejays playing fun, upbeat music to keep everybody having a good time.”
Then there are the 600 or so students who spend nearly two full days dancing and dancing and dancing, and then dancing some more.
“We have a dancer relations committee focused on making sure that the dancers are well enough to continue going on, and getting them medical support if that’s not the case,” Klemick said.
And a couple of months prior to THON weekend, dancers receive guides about how to prepare physically for taxing their bodies to such an extent.
“One of my really good friends danced in 2020,” Gearhart recalled, “and she said afterward she felt like she could do anything, because if she could survive that, she could survive anything.”