3 students make shape of diamond with fingers in the air

They did it! A life-changing experience for Scranton's THON dancers

Scranton dancers Raj Gandhi, Raymond Ondrako and Amanda Rzucidlo share stories of their favorite memories dancing For the Kids in THON 2023.
By: Morgan Sewack

DUNMORE, Pa. – When THON 2023 -- Foster the Magic concluded on Sunday, Feb. 19 at 4 p.m., another record-breaking total for money raised for the Four Diamonds Fund and pediatric cancer research and support was announced – a whopping $15,006,132.46!

And there, on the main dance floor in the Bryce Jordan Center were three triumphant, but exhausted, Penn State Scranton students who were elated to have been part of the legendary IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, but also grateful that the grueling 46-hour no sitting, no sleeping event was officially over.

three students in a crowded stadium

Amanda Rzucidlo, Raymond Ondrako and Raj Gandhi on the dance floor of the Bryce Jordan Center during THON 2023 weekend. All three completed the grueling 46-hour no sleeping, no sitting dance marathon that raises money for the Four Diamonds Fund and the fight against pediatric cancer.

Credit: Penn State

A few days after their return to campus, and some much needed R & R, Raj Gandhi, Raymond Ondrako and Amanda Rzucidlo shared stories of their favorite memories leading up to the record-breaking THON total, of which $30,483.66 was raised at Penn State Scranton, putting our campus in the Top 10 of the Commonwealth Campuses.

THON-ing for Arelis

Scranton's campus THON dancers were all so excited once they arrived at University Park Thursday afternoon, the day before the start of THON 2023. Soon after their arrival, the three were able to FaceTime with Penn State Scranton’s "THON child," Arelis Rodriguez.

“Getting to meet her definitely gave me that extra boost of energy I needed,” Rzucidlo said. “I was like, ‘I’m ready, I’m here for Arelis!’ It was good to know that she was there supporting us, and I was so happy to show her the poster we made for her.”

“I was really surprised getting to talk to Arelis!” Ondrako exclaimed. “This was my first time actually being able to talk to her, and she was really encouraging to all of us and really excited for us to go down to THON, since this was our first time as dancers. Getting to talk to her beforehand definitely gave me even more of a reason to dance at THON for the full 46,” he said.

“Honestly, it was nice getting to know Arelis a little bit more,” Gandhi said. “That’s the whole reason why we do THON; Arelis is our THON child, but getting to talk to her for a little bit made it like ‘hey, here’s someone we’re dancing for.’ Just seeing her up and active was inspiring enough.”

The BJC was Boomin’

Another inspiring moment for the three dancers was seeing the Penn State Scranton supporters who came to the BJC to cheer on the dancers.

“Once we got into the Bryce Jordan Center, it became surreal,” Ondrako said. “It really hit me thinking, ‘okay this is it; we’re going to be here for the next 46 hours.’ And of course, once we saw the Penn State Scranton people, that’s what really hyped me up in the moment.”

“The energy was incredible,” Gandhi said. “The energy has always been pretty intense in the past when I have gone down to be a supporter, but being on the floor made it twice more exciting, inspiring and all-around epic.”

Rzucidlo said she could barely sleep Thursday night and woke up bright and early Friday morning, eagerly anticipating the 46-hour dance marathon. “When we first stood up, it was so exciting!” she exclaimed. “All weekend long, I was so excited and was walking around a lot. It was a super fun experience.”

Prior to going to THON weekend, Rzucidlo was most excited about learning the line dance. As soon as she arrived and they began teaching it, Rzucidlo made sure to get close to the stage. “I think if the music were to start playing now, I would still be able to dance to it,” she said. “It was super fun!”

Seeing Penn State Scranton supporters cheering them on in the stands made Gandhi fill with joy. “Seeing our new Scranton sign was incredible,” he said. “Taking pictures of it did no justice compared to seeing it from the floor. It was massive and you could immediately tell that it was Scranton. It was nice seeing the Scranton sign up there.”

The Penn State Scranton student supporters also surprised the dancers with banners and cardboard cutouts of their faces.

“It was so different,” Rzucidlo noted, when seeing the Penn State Scranton section in the Bryce Jordan Center. “I was so used to being in the stands, but when I looked up and saw our cutouts, it excited all of us.”

“I loved seeing the signs they made for us with our faces in them. They even made one of my cat, funny enough,” Ondrako chuckled. “I thought it was very wholesome and have now placed the picture hanging up in my home. It was very exciting!”

Activities and live performances kept them occupied

Another incredible moment for the group was getting to meet singer/songwriter Natasha Bedingfield and watch her perform. “I can’t believe we got to meet and talk to her!” Rzucidlo exclaimed.

“Natasha Bedingfield was another top moment for me,” Ondrako said. “As soon as I heard her singing, we all ran up to the front. It was really cool being that close to her.”

“Getting to meet and talk to Natasha was another thing that motivated me,” Gandhi said. “I mean who doesn’t know her song, ‘Unwritten’? – I feel like that’s just an iconic song and also defines what Penn State is too – your path is never unwritten.”

In addition to Bedingfield’s performance, Gandhi, Ondrako and Rzucidlo also enjoyed the other activities designed to keep dancers busy during the 46 hours, such as silent disco, creating bracelets, coloring stations and much more.

“One of my favorite memories was doing hula-hoops and jump rope with Raj and RJ at what I think was five in the morning,” Rzucidlo said.

Support from family, friends, DRCM’s, and dancer mail was essential

“I really enjoyed having our friends who were able to come down to the floor with us for an hour,” Ondrako said.

In THON’s final hours, Rzucidlo’s feet began to hurt and swell. And not knowing the exact time caused a bit of confusion for her as well. “Our Dancer Relations Committee Member’s (DRCM) switched the times on our phones. I remember thinking we were probably about 10 hours in, but I truly had no idea what time it actually was throughout the whole weekend.”

When she started experiencing extreme exhaustion, her DRCM showed her a pre-recorded video of her older sister, Lauren, who was a Penn State Scranton THON Dancer in 2020.

Lauren gave her younger sister some heartfelt advice, telling her, "remember why you’re here and the reason your THONing in the first place."

“Once I watched that video, I immediately began to cry and thought of Arelis who I’m THONing for,” Amanda recalled. I admit, after that, my feet started to hurt less; I was feeling more motivated and began reading the dancer mail.”

In that mail was a message from her best friend, which also struck an emotional chord for her. “My best friend sent me a big box with memos and a vintage camera and said to take pictures of the memories, and a keychain that matched hers, which made me cry even more.”

The video and dancer mail weren’t all the surprises in store for Amanda

Her sister and best friend surprised Amanda out on the floor, which raised her spirits and gave her the extra motivation she needed to make it through the full 46 hours.

Gandhi and Ondrako had similar experiences, getting to talk to their family members, which also gave them the energy they needed to keep going. “Being able to FaceTime with my mom and reading the dancer mail helped me get through the 46 hours,” Ondrako said.

“It’s definitely not easy having to stand and not sleep for 46 hours,” Gandhi said. “So, when I was experiencing certain lows, the people there -- dancers from other campuses and DRCM’s -- were always able to help me, even if I didn’t ask for it. Another motivating moment was seeing my mom on the floor for an hour, which meant a lot to me.”

All three dancers said that their DRCM’s were “awesome and super helpful.” So much so, that all three want to become DRCM’s in the future to help dancers get through what they endured during the 46 hours.

Being on the Jumbotron

Gandhi, who is also a member of our campus’ Chorale and Rock[tet] band, auditioned to sing ‘Easy on Me’ by Adele at THON via pre-recorded video, which was played during the weekend. He admits that although he had a feeling that his audition video would be making an appearance on the Jumbotron, it humbled him when he was able to experience it live.

“I chose that as my song choice, not because of breakups and divorce, but more so to connect with college students in a way,” Gandhi said. “It’s important to go easy on yourself while you’re in college.”

Rzucidlo also made a big appearance on the big screen as well, after hopping in line to have her hair cut and donated.

“After waiting in line, they put zip locks in my hair and that’s when the nerves started to kick in,” Rzucidlo recalled. “After they snapped off the first section of my hair and gave it to me to hold, I was so excited – I was waving it at the Penn State Scranton people and the crowd, and made a couple twirls showing off my new hair on the stage.”

three smiling students dance in a crowded stadium

Amanda Rzucidlo, at left, rejoins her dancing partners, Ray Ondrako and Raj Gandhi sporting a new shorter haircut, after having her long hair cut on stage during THON weekend and giving it as a donation to THON partner Wigs for Kids.

Credit: Penn State

After getting 13 inches chopped off, Rzucidlo met Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi, who thanked her for donating her hair.  “It was such an honor getting to meet Dr. Bendapudi again!” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe she was thanking me.”

The moment was even more impactful as Rzucidlo had been growing her hair out for years, only getting minimal trims when needed, and hadn’t had a major haircut since elementary school. “It was a big surprise, but I’m learning to accept it,” Rzucidlo said. “I think it looks really good now.”

Preparation was key for the THON dancers

“I know what helped me get through THON was preparing by standing for long periods of time and practicing endurance,” Rzucidlo said. “In my three-hour lab classes, I just didn’t sit down and would stand on my feet the whole time. Stretching was a big thing for me too.”

Balance was another key thing for Rzucidlo which helped her during THON weekend.

“I conserved my energy at certain points to help make it through the 46 hours. I think it was a big mental game too, but I remember it makes you feel like you can do anything,” Rzucidlo said. “Dancing for 46 hours sounds like a lot but it’s not as painful as it is for what these kids go through. Sure, it hurts for now, but they’re going through this all their lives,” she said.

Meanwhile, for Ondrako, cutting out caffeine weeks in advance helped him with being able to stay awake.

“I was able to feel pretty good on Sunday, surprisingly, but I do think that is from cutting out the caffeine earlier than I usually would,” Ondrako said. After THON, one of his friends brought him a Mountain Dew Baja Blast, a tropical lime-flavored drink, which is something Ondrako had mentioned he wanted to have as soon as he was finished with THON. “It was a good surprise,” he said.

Having gone to THON all four years at Penn State Scranton, Ondrako was familiar with many aspects of THON, but said being there as a dancer opened his eyes up to new moments he had never witnessed before.

“Thankfully we didn’t know what time it was, but the line dance served as a good indicator that we are getting into the hour,” Ondrako added. “Since we were up for the full 46 with no sitting and sleeping, you have to keep yourself occupied. A lot of the times, we did stretches, which helped a lot.”

Gandhi agrees with his fellow dancers and suggests to anyone that wants to become a THON dancer in the future “practice now by walking and standing on your feet for as long as possible.”

The final hours

“I think for me, one of my all-time favorite moments was the final four hours – just hearing the stories is really impactful to see where the kids are today, as well as to pay respects to the Four Diamonds kids that, unfortunately, lost their lives,” Ondrako said.

They were the most difficult for Rzucidlo, as she was sleep deprived and experiencing delusion and feeling like she was going to “black out,” she explained.

“Everyone kept telling me to stay calm and shortly after, they were doing the final line dance and announced after that the dancers were able to sit, which gave my body so much relief,” she recalled.

“It was a shocker when THON was ending,” Gandhi said. “I noticed the DRCMs left after the last line dance, everyone was hugging and crying, and then the countdown began.”

Like Rzucidlo, Gandhi and Ondrako also emphasized the relief they felt when they were told they can sit after the 46-hour dance marathon was ending.

“I felt like the pressure from my legs went straight to my head!” Gandhi exclaimed.

 “I didn’t want to get back up,” Ondrako said with a chuckle.

While being able to sit after 46 hours brought much needed relief to the dancers, nothing was more rewarding than watching the 2023 THON total be unveiled.

“I was so happy when I found out it was over 15 million!” Ondrako exclaimed. “We made predictions, but I had no idea what the total was going to be. I thought that was amazing!”

Ondrako gives thanks to everyone who helped out at THON, not only at Penn State Scranton, but across the Commonwealth and all of the supporters. “Without everyone’s enthusiasm and support, I am not sure I would’ve been able to make it through the full 46 without them. I am also so grateful to have had Amanda and Raj for never leaving my side down there, which made all that time staying awake so much easier,” he said.

“THON’s a lot of work and that’s what I think some people may not realize – I think at times, people may think that it’s us requesting money, but the cause is so great,” Rzucidlo said. “You don’t understand the pain and the sorrows the kids and their families are going through – THON is just bigger than any of us and it’s impressive to know that it’s run by all students and see them on the floor. It impacts everyone.”

“The entire weekend was my favorite!” Gandhi exclaimed. “It felt nice to know that there are so many people donating to THON, especially from our campus. Everything we’ve done throughout the whole year just for that moment is amazing and it’s rewarding to know we made it to the Top 10.”

Contributing behind the scenes

While Gandhi, Ondrako and Rzucidlo danced, the three said that it would have been impossible for them to be there without Penn State Scranton’s THON Committee co-chairs, Joseph Krishanda and Olivia Maikranz, and their support and hard work throughout the past year.

As primary chair for Penn State Scranton’s THON, Maikranz’s responsibilities include just about everything – securing students as supporters, planning and hosting fundraisers, maintaining contact with the University Park side of THON, choosing the dancers, and supporting our THON child, Arelis.

“It is always a group effort of my co-chair, advisors and captains!” Maikranz exclaimed. “It is certainly not an individual effort!”

As Maikranz’s co-chair, Krishanda shared similar responsibilities.

“This year we kind of broke it down by what we were both good at and wanted to do,” Krishanda explained. “For example, any of the University Park meetings we had to attend, Olivia was most likely the one there; but any fundraiser that had to be approved went through me so that way not all the stress was on one person. Along with maintaining a relationship with our donors and making sure student engagement was up from last year.”

This year was Maikranz’s fourth THON weekend, which she mentioned “is always truly magical.”

“Although THON weekend is hard to describe in words, there is a sense of Penn State community and pride felt that secures a faith in human kindness and support like nothing else,” Maikranz said. 

For her, THON isn't just the largest student run philanthropy – it's a lifestyle.

“I wanted to become involved with THON because a child should just be able to be a child without the burden of cancer!” she exclaimed. “Having the opportunity to try and support Four Diamonds and the children they serve has always been such a rewarding experience. We will never stop until we are dancing in celebration of a cure!”

Similarly, Krishanda remains involved with THON since the experience of his first THON weekend a few years ago.

“It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there, but there comes a moment when you look down at the floor and it just hits you,” he said.

“The week of THON started with excitement and nerves just because of the million other things we had to do that week before we left on Thursday,” Krishanda explained. “Once Friday came, all the nerves went away and a sense of relief came over me because not only were all of our supporters on their way, but this was it – this was the weekend we had been waiting for the past 365 days. Once THON weekend was over, I was extremely thankful for everything we accomplished this year.”

Maikranz was most proud of seeing all the money raised this year from both the campus and at the University level, as well as our supporters and donors whose combined efforts helped our campus get to that amount.

In total, Penn State Scranton held seven different events for THON, not including events hosted by other clubs to help benefit the cause.

“I am also most proud of our dancers whose dedication for the kids never wavered as they stood all 46 hours!” she exclaimed.

Maikranz and Krishanda both credited the supporters for keeping the dancers energy alive.

“Their endless support and energy throughout the weekend helped pick our dancers up from their lows and keep them dancing until the forty-sixth hour,” Maikranz said. “Also seeing us get closer to our fundraising goal throughout the weekend really motivated our dancers, as it reminds them of how important their efforts are. And most importantly, our THON child, Arelis, is a constant reminder of why we do what we do, and she is always an inspiration of strength that we look up to, especially our dancers.”

Krishanda agrees that the supporters helped increase the liveliness in the Bryce Jordan Center and sincerely appreciates their efforts over THON weekend.

“There was never a dead time in the section and I truly believed that helped our dancers get over the hump,” he said.

An artful gift let's one student be at THON in spirit 

Raphael Carvalho, a second-year biology and pre-med major at Penn State Scranton, was not able to attend THON weekend this year, but that didn’t stop him from playing a big role in the campus' THON efforts. Here are the shoes he designed, and his story below.

3 feet modeling white sneakers with THON artwork

Staffers and campus supporters attending THON to cheer on our three dancers donned some spirited, but comfy footwear over the weekend, specially designed by campus pre-med student Raphael Carvalho.

Credit: Penn State

Customizing shoes for the cause

As the countdown began during the weeks leading up to THON, Carvalho designed THON-themed shoes for chaperones and student services staffers Matthew Nied, director of student services; Nicole Paolicelli, coordinator of student activities; and Dharti Ray, assistant director of student services, to wear during THON weekend.

Carvalho said that designing and painting each pair of shoes took roughly three-to-four hours from start to finish.

“The fact that I can have one little contribution, even it's not a donation, but just to make someone else feel good about the shoes that they’re wearing, is a rewarding feeling in and of itself,” Carvalho said.

His shoe designing hobby originated about five years ago when he came across a group of custom shoe painting YouTubers who called themselves “customizers” and was inspired to try his hand at the craft.

“I was never really into art besides drawing and sketching,” Carvalho said. “I thought I wasn’t really good at it, but once I tried custom shoe painting, it helped me find that passion.”

He started off with simple designs and has progressed ever since.

Painting shoes for only himself in the early stages of discovering his new-found hobby, Carvalho noted that the interest from his friends grew the more they saw his customized shoes.

“I started my sophomore year of high school just for myself, but then I had a few people ask me where I got them, and I told them I painted them” he said. “That became a big thing in high school -- I would paint shoes for my friends for free -- and then they suggested that I should start charging people, which turned into a little business.”

His small business didn’t stop in high school.

“My dream is to be a pediatrician when I am older, so the fact that THON is ‘For The Kids’ inspires me a lot because it’s such an innocent and beautiful time in a person’s life -- which is what inspired me the most when designing each pair of shoes,” he said.

Carvalho believes that wearing the shoes out in public will help gain attention and bring more awareness to the cause.

“I’m sure a lot of people who follow me on Instagram don’t know what THON is, so I made sure to tag them and Penn State Scranton so that people can read more about it through my post,” he said. “It’s like a little shoutout in and of itself,” he said.

Carvalho hopes that this opportunity will lead him to painting more shoes for the campus community and other causes throughout the local area.

“I am always open to trying new designs and pushing my limits!” Carvalho exclaimed.

Interested in wanting your own pair of customized shoes? All inquiries can be placed via direct message through his Instagram handle @carvalhocustoms