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Yough grad dances in Penn State THON fundraiser

| Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 4:55 p.m.
Denise Babilya (left), a sophomore at Penn State, dances at the university's student-run THON on Feb. 16, 2013, with her brothers, Yough junior Michael (center) and Penn State freshman Scott (right). Babilya, of West Newton, worked with her organization to contribute about $8,800 to the $12.37 million total raised during the 46-hour dance marathon for pediatric cancer research and care.
Denise Babilya (right) of West Newton and fellow dancer Alexis Rogers show off their dancer numbes at Penn State's student-run 46-hour dance marathon. At this year's THON Feb. 15 to 17, 2013, the pair represented the Engineering and Applied Science Interest House, a special-living option organization that has about 50 active members. Submitted

Colleen Babilya visited the 15,200-capacity arena at Penn State University and was shocked to find a line of students and supporters packing the place at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday.

Later that weekend during the 46-hour Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, known as THON, a fundraising total of $12.37 million was revealed to the crowd, more than 4,000 volunteers and 700 dancers, including Babilya's daughter, Denise.

“We were so excited,” the 20-year-old sophomore and West Newton native said. The money is used to further pediatric cancer research and care for the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital.

Begun in 1977, THON is completely student-run and has raised more than $89 million for the fund, with this year's total on Feb. 17 larger than any other.

Denise Babilya, studying chemical engineering, helped raise funds as a freshman when she joined the Engineering and Applied Science Interest (EASI) House, a special-living option on campus where members live together on two floors of a dormitory.

She was enamored with the whirlwind weekend event, including time spent with children battling cancer who play with squirt guns and dance to the music alongside the students.

So, she befriended the group's THON chairwoman Alexis Rogers, a junior from southeastern Pennsylvania studying biology.

Last year, the organization raised more than $7,000 to guarantee two dancers for this year's event. Babilya, this year's THON chairwoman, was chosen to dance because of her involvement with the group, helping to raise about $8,800 this year.

She prepared to stand on her feet for the entire marathon by cutting any dependence on caffeine in January and maintained a regular exercise and sleep schedule.

The student-dancer said from the moment she entered the human tunnel to begin Friday night to the reveal Sunday afternoon, the time flew by, full of energy, sound and color.

“Everyone was really supportive, I appreciate that,” she said, including her parents Jeff and Colleen Babilya and siblings, Yough senior Hannah, Yough junior Michael, Yough freshman Paul and Penn State freshman Scott.

“She had the perseverance to keep doing it,” her mother said. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, then you'll make it through.”

Even though her daughter seemed delirious during the late-night visit, Colleen Babilya said she was glad the family shared the experience.

“It is wild,” she said, adding that when she graduated from Penn State in 1985, THON was much smaller, nothing like it is today.

Denise Babilya said it was worth it to see the joy expressed by the children battling cancer. Some look forward to the annual February weekend more than Christmas.

“You think, ‘This could be anybody's kids,' it could be your brother, it could be anyone … it's not fair,” she said. “We had to be strong for two days, but these families have to be strong every day.”

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 724-836-6660.