HAZLETON, Pa. — Charlie Karchner has attended THON for 16 years, and has even been on the floor of the 46-hour dance marathon. But this year will bring a whole new THON experience for him as he takes on the role of dancer.
Diagnosed with cancer in 2001 at age 5, Karchner and his family were supported by THON and have attended every year since 2003, even after he was declared in remission in August 2004. This year, he is one of a pair of Penn State Hazleton dancers who will take to the dance floor Feb. 15-17 at the Bryce Jordan Center at University Park. He will be joined by fellow Penn State Hazleton dancer Austin Yaletchko.
“As I was getting ready to go to kindergarten, I would bruise really easily, get random nosebleeds and be tired a lot. My parents took me to the doctor, who did tests and determined my red and white blood cell count was really high,” Karchner said. He was sent to Hershey Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and began treatments, including chemotherapy.
“There was a huge pressure put on my parents. Their whole world got flipped upside down. My dad had to stop going to work, but the expenses were so high and we still needed money. That’s when the community really stepped in and started donating a lot for our family,” said Karchner, who is family relations chair for Penn State Hazleton this year.
“THON provided us with so much more than a monetary benefit. It gave us everything a family could ask for. That one weekend out of the year helps kids forget about having cancer and just be a kid,” he said. “And THON gives students the opportunity to reach outside themselves and be a better person as they provide families with help and care.”
This year, Penn State Hazleton THON is supporting the family of a 14-month-old boy named Remington who has been diagnosed with neuroblastoma.
“Over the years, I’ve seen so many families who were affected by cancer. I wanted to do everything I could to help them, which is why I took the plunge to become a dancer this year,” said Yaletchko, who serves as member morale captain.
Yaletchko was introduced to THON as a first-year student through friends and said he “instantly fell in love” with the organization and what it does.
“Seeing all the people coming together to try to find a cure and support those with cancer made me know I wanted to not only be involved but eventually be a dancer,” he said. “It showed me just a glimpse of what people go through and how THON is there for emotional support for families who are struggling.
“There’s no words to say how impressed I am with Charlie and his family. I’m in awe at how they handled everything. My dream is that one day, kids never have to hear the word ‘cancer’ again and that we can work together through donations to end cancer.”
Karchner and Yaletchko are both seniors majoring in engineering with the alternative energy and power generation track, so they already spend a lot of time together in and out of class.
“I’m really excited to have Charlie as my co-dancer. We’re in the same major and we work together really well. It’s almost like I’ll be dancing with my best friend,” Yaletchko said.
Some familiar faces for the Karchner family will be in the crowd among the thousands of people attending THON. During his battle with cancer, they were supported by the Alpha Delta Pi sorority and some former Alpha Delta Pi dancers will be back this year — this time to watch Karchner dance.
It’s the first time either Karchner or Yaletchko will dance at THON, although both have served a variety of roles with the organization. They balance their time preparing for THON with part-time jobs and sports — soccer and water polo for Yalechko, and golf and baseball for Karchner.
To prepare for 46 hours on their feet dancing, the pair has been going to the gym, running and eating well — but said that’s only half the battle.
“We know what to expect, but we can’t predict what it will actually be like. I can only do so much to prepare for it,” Karchner said. “I’ve seen 16 years worth of dancers dance for me and other kids with cancer. Doing that while being so tired is almost incomprehensible.”
His sister, Kayla, who danced at THON for Penn State Hazleton in 2016, told him she can’t wait to hear how he describes his experience at THON.
“She told me I don’t know what I’m in for,” Karchner said.
Kayla attended Penn State Hazleton for two years before finishing her degree at University Park and their father, Chaz, is an alumnus of the Hazleton campus.
“THON had a huge impact on why I chose Penn State. I saw exactly what Penn State does for the community, down to the core. There was no other option for me when it came time to choose a college,” Karchner said.
“THON has changed me in a way that makes me want to live according to the four diamonds — wisdom, courage, strength and honesty,” he said, referring to Christopher Millard’s story he wrote before he passed away from cancer at age 14. In the story, the knight had to collect the four diamonds to defeat an evil sorceress. The diamonds represented the qualities his family believed were necessary in his fight against cancer. Millard’s parents founded Four Diamonds, now the sole beneficiary of THON, to assist children and their families in the fight against pediatric cancer.
“I want to be somebody who is virtuous and does good things. And I want to pay back THON for what they’ve given to me and my family,” Karchner said.
Robert Knight, coordinator of student engagement, said, “This group of students at Penn State Hazleton set a very lofty goal — more than we’ve raised in quite a while — and I think they’ll achieve it. They really understand the meaning behind what we do. But without community support, we’d be nowhere near our goal.”