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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Family Matters

Morgen Johnson squirts dancer Blake Wilhelmy with a squirt gun before the start of THON 2016.

Annual fundraising event 'like three days of Christmas' for Juniata County family

MIFFLIN — One day in December 2009 when Morgen Johnson was just 2 years old, Morgen’s grandmother noticed blood in the toddler’s urine. The find led to calls to doctors, which led to an ultrasound, which ultimately led to a diagnosis of Wilms’ Tumor (a type of cancer that starts in the kidney and is commonly found in children) and finally a visit to the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey.

Soon after their arrival at Hershey, Morgen’s family was assigned a social worker who told them about the Four Diamonds Fund and about the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, more commonly known as THON, which takes place this weekend at Bryce Jordan Center.

“Four Diamonds is more than just financial help, though that relieves so much stress in itself. It is also being a part of a huge family that understands your fears, worries, and all the things that come along with it,” said Morgen’s mother Briana Snyder. “THON is also like an even bigger family that just gets what you feel without talking.”

Now 9 years old, and cancer free for the past five and a half years, Morgen and her family are participating in their sixth THON this weekend.

Four Diamonds child, Morgen Johnson, 9, of Mifflin, helps 
Rebecca Pilkington, one of her THON dancers, make a 
headband during a pre-THON party at Penn State’s Delta 
Kappa Epsilon fraternity house.
As for their THON experiences, Snyder calls THON “awonderful experience,” and says that it is an honor to be part of it. This year, as in the previous five years, Morgen’s family will be paired with dancers from the Sigma Alpha sorority and Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity.

Since being paired with Sigma Alpha and Delta Kappa Epsilon through THON’s Adopt a Family program six years ago, Snyder says she “would never dream of changing” to a different organization. She said that her family has cookouts with the Sigma Alpha and Delta Kappa Epsilon dancers and that the dancers from the sorority and fraternity celebrate birthdays with her kids and have sleepovers with Morgen.

“They are wonderful. We love them like family and we [have] become very close to them,” Snyder said. “…(I) can’t say enough wonderful things about them.”

Morgen says that dancing with her dancers from Sigma Alpha and Delta Kappa Epsilon is fun and that she enjoys her birthdays with them, as well.

Snyder says that her fondest memories from THON are of Morgen participating in the Four Diamonds children’s fashion show, spending time with their dancers on the floor, and getting to see all the other families that they only get to see once a year.

“The entire weekend is full of excitement,” she says. “It’s like three days of Christmas.”

Morgen says her favorite part of the weekend is playing with the other THON dancers.

Snyder says that every year she “walks away from THON learning something new about life and what matters,” adding, “…before you go through dealing with cancer, you take things for granted. After you deal with it, little things matter — (your) kid’s laughter, hugging your child, playing with your child.”

This year’s THON will have additional meaning for Morgen’s family as they will not only be dancing for Morgen; they will also be dancing in memory of Andrew Garwood, a former dancer for Morgen who passed away this year after battling cancer.

“Last year one of our dancers had brain cancer and this past January he passed away, so this year I feel as though we, as a family, are dancing this year for him,” Synder said. “He stood 46 hours last year for my daughter, so I feel I owe it to him to make this year his year.”

While THON may just seem to be collection of students dancing for a good cause, to those who are involved, it is more than that; it is family.

“We have met so many students that have since graduated and continue to stay in touch with them,” Snyder said. “They become part of your family.”

Note: This article, that I authored, appeared in the February 20, 2016 edition of The (Lewistown) Sentinel.

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