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THON 2021’s Family Hour Just As Emotional & Impactful Virtually

As always, Family Hour at THON is undoubtedly the most sobering part of the entire weekend. The THON 2021 Weekend’s rendition was no exception, despite being virtual.

Family Hour began with a montage of Four Diamonds families and children describing what THON means to them. Family Relations Director Anne Papandreas welcomed the virtual crowd and introduced the montage.

“We unify to continue to telling the stories of those we lost,” Papandreas said.

Four Diamonds co-founder Charles Millard followed. Millard started the Four Diamonds. In an emotional interview,

“Each year is different and exciting and stands on its own, but put them all together and it’s magnificent what it’s done,” Millard said. “There’s no place in the world that does what THON does.”

After Millard’s clip aired, the Hailey Dougherty was the first Four Diamonds family to speak. Dougherty was diagnosed on February 11 of last year with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Hailey’s family is paired with Club Softball.

Hailey knew something was wrong last February two weeks when she was at a swimming race last year and couldn’t stand up. Her mom, Heather, didn’t think much of it at first until Hailey got her blood test results back.

“I was always the kid that was there for everyone else, so just like the second I wasn’t there, everyone was like, ‘What’s happening to her? Where is she? What’s wrong?'” Hailey said.

Despite having seizures and allergic reactions to her treatments over the last year, Hailey is in remission but still goes once a month for checkups to ensure that things are okay.

“It’s just crazy how THON and THON students have worked with us even through this COVID time,” Heather said.

Hailey and Heather talked about how much she loves being a part of the THON’s TEENetwork because it gives her a chance to feel like a regular kid again.

“It’s definitely made her feel welcome and a part of something this year when she is so isolated and away from everybody else,” Heather said.

Next up was the adopt-a-family highlight through the eyes of various THON orgs. The video showcased each organization’s THON children and the relationships that members have formed through their pairings.

Each organization shared some of the ways that they’ve been able to be there for their families, through participating in events like the THON 5K or hanging with the families on a weekend visit.

“These families have been a constant source of light for us…you inspire us every day.”

Heather said the best advice she received for Hailey’s experience with Four Diamonds was to accept help when needed since there is already so much to worry about when dealing with a child’s cancer diagnosis.

“I can focus on her and her recovery,” Heather said. “I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to pay for this or how I’m going to pay for that. It’s been huge.”

Following the video highlighting the organizations, the Makenna Linder family spoke in a video. Makenna was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor – a type of tumor that could rupture at any point and spread all throughout the body if not treated immediately.

Her brother, dad, and mom were all present for her Family Hour clip. When the family received the diagnosis, Matthew, her brother, described the moment as gut-wrenching.

Twenty months after her initial diagnosis, Makenna was diagnosed with cancer rhabdomyosarcoma – a type of bladder cancer. This time, unlike the last, would mean that she would have a long road ahead of her. Matthew said that although the journey’s been tough, it’s been made easier by the THON community.

“The community, you guys, everybody has been there to help us through this journey…Within the storm, there’s a shining light, too,” Matthew said.

Through the hard times, however, Matthew said that the family has become even closer. But, Matthew and Amanda recognize that they couldn’t have gotten through their journey without the support of their partnered THON family, the Science Lion Pride.

“If it wasn’t for all of you guys, we wouldn’t have all of the support that we have,” Matthew said. “These last few years, since September of 2017, it seems like it’s just been a path.”

While she’s had many favorite THON memories, Makenna said her favorite THON memory so far was judging the dance contest at last year’s THON.

Amanda, Makenna’s mom, and Matthew’s advice for other families who have experienced pediatric cancer are to reach out for help.

After the Linder family spoke, the Where Are They Now? video played, highlighting the lives of Four Diamonds children who have won their battles against cancer. When the video concluded, the Nicholas Akright family spoke.

His sister, Ashley, and mom, Cara Gray said Nicholas took his own life in 2004 due to the lasting effects of his treatment from his acute lymphoblastic leukemia diagnosis years before. Phi Gamma Nu represents his family.

The after-effects of Nicholas’ treatment caused a lot of mental health problems and learning disabilities, especially during his freshman year of college, for him up until the end of his life. He attended Penn State and his final THON in 2004.

Ashley and Cara spoke about the importance of raising funds for pediatric cancer research to also support survivors in their journeys after enduring treatment.

“We continue our involvement in THON until no more children suffer. Because of your efforts, we will be one step closer to this goal,” Cara said.

Ashley served as a THON captain when THON moved from the Rec Hall to the BJC. She recalled that like this year, people feared that the move to a different environment wouldn’t be able to capture the same experience.

“THON doesn’t live in a building,” Ashley said. “Instead of seeing this year as something that’s making THON less intimate or less impactful, use it as an opportunity that we can reach more people.”

Family hour concluded with the Celebration of Life video with the always emotional song “Dancing in the Sky” playing in the background, remembering all of the Four Diamond children who have passed away in the last five decades, along with the song “Angels Among Us.”

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About the Author

Mackenzie Cullen

Sadly, Mackenzie graduated from Penn State in 2022. She majored in English and served as one of Onward State's associate editors. You can keep up with her life and send compliments to @MackenzieC__ on Twitter.

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