Tag Archives: THON

At THON, Students Dance for a Cure

In the predawn darkness outside the Bryce Jordan Center at Penn State, it sounded like an all-night rave was in full swing, complete with thrashing guitar music.

Inside, a kaleidoscope of colors – thousands of students wearing bright T-shirts of blue, green, red, pink, white, yellow and purple — filled the arena.

From the upper seats, it looked like a living pointillist painting.

In the corridors, grown-ups, many of them parents of students, such as myself, wore the thousand-yard stares that come with being up too early with too little coffee.

But in the arena at 4:45 a.m., the energy level was soaring. The students were nearing the 12th hour of what would be a no-sitting, no-sleeping 46-hour dance-athon known as THON.

The event, described by organizers as the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, raises money to benefit kids with cancer and their families.

For those of a certain age, it’s reminiscent of the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethons that raised money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Unlike those of telethons of old, which relied on a stream of appearances by an assortment of Grade B celebrities and entertainers, THON is fueled by more than 16,000 student volunteers.

The numbers THON racks up are truly staggering:

• 16 committees oversee everything, from public relations to operations and security. The volunteers are designated by their different colored T-shirts.
• 2,000 student fundraisers over the year benefit THON
• 650,000 THONvelopes sorted and distributed to raise money
• $10.6 million raised in 2019, with the money benefitting pediatric cancer patients and their families at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Those families never get a bill for what insurance does not cover.
• Since THON’s start more than 40 years ago, it’s raised $157 million.

The arena during THON has the feel of a bustling airport, political convention and Olympics opening ceremony all rolled into one.

Look beyond the sheer logistics and details of organizing, however, and you will find at its core an indomitable spirit of giving, empathy and commitment.

The uniting principle of THON is “For the Kids,” and it is on display everywhere: Posters created by students and families, head bands that say “No Hair, Just Don’t Care,” worn by students who have shaved their heads in solidarity with pediatric cancer patients, photos and, of course, the T-shirts.

Families and cancer survivors came on stage and offered powerful, moving testimonials.

Parents whose sons and daughters did not survive also paid tribute to their loved ones, followed by a slide show of those who died.

It occurred to me about halfway through the slide show that it was fitting that college students – filled with the energy and exuberance of youth – tackle such a monumental undertaking as helping kids with cancer.

Adults, especially parents, would be too crippled by the enormity of the undertaking. I know I would be, and my boys, thank God, are healthy.

I was struck by one mother of a cancer survivor who said: “Don’t stop when you’re tired. Stop when you’re done.”

In its slogan, THON embraces that fully: “One day we will dance in celebration. Until then, we dance for a cure.”

For the kids.

THON at Penn State Banishes Despair

It is nearly 3 in the morning on the Saturday of Presidents’ Day weekend and the Bryce Jordan Center at Penn State University in State College, Pa., looks to be hosting a celebration that is a cross between a rave and Mardi Gras.

The circular corridor teems with college students wearing leis, beads or frilly tutus (guys included), brightly colored T-shirts and sporting glitter on their cheeks or the letters “FTK.”

Inside the arena, music loudly thumps and lights flash. The stands are filled with more students who gyrate and jump to the music.

Large cutout letters representing the names of various sororities and fraternities are outlined with strands of glowing Christmas lights.

I am still trying to figure out how they kept them lit without plugging into a outlet. Probably engineering students.

The arena floor is an ant hill of activity, with more students dancing, clapping and chanting.

The energy level at this hour is at a 7 and by the time the weekend finishes, it will be cranked to a 12 and the students will have torn off the dial.

Instead of heading to ski slopes or heading home for the holiday weekend or returning to their dorms after a night of drinking, these students instead dedicated themselves to a charity fundraiser known as THON.

THON is a 46-hour dance marathon and the capstone of a year’s worth of raising money and awareness in the fight against childhood cancer. It is two days of no sitting and no sleeping.

And that’s no kidding. Even spectators from the public who come to observe are expected to stand in a gesture of respect and support.

THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, involves more than 16,000 students in various capacities, and on this weekend, 707 dancers will be supported by members of 16 committees.

Some of the dancers had to raise a minimum of $2,800 to be eligible to be entered into a random drawing so they could have the privilege of being on their feet for nearly two days.

Last year alone THON raised $10 million for the Penn State Children’s Hospital in Hershey, Pa. Since 1977, it has raised more than $146 million.

Reaching that level of success is an audacious undertaking requiring enormous planning and dedication.

And it shows.

A colleague who went to Penn State told me he had a cold dead heart but that THON touched him deeply.

I can now see why.

This will sound corny, but I was immediately moved by the good will that THON represented. Maybe I was tired from the three-hour drive, but I was an emotional basket case as soon as I stepped inside.

The cheer and verve on display would melt the heart of any cynic.

Testaments to the cause were everywhere.

Of particular note were T-shirts dedicated to certain children and others that read: “One day we will dance in celebration. Until then we will dance for a cure.”

THON keeps the families of children with cancer in the forefront, with families actually attending the event and given a private setting to gather.

The logistics of pulling this off cannot be overstated.

We are talking Disney-scale behind the scenes planning for a weekend involving a core of 3,300 student volunteers who oversee everything from security to sanitation.

Dance relations committee members partner with designated dancers to see to their care and feeding, going so far as to sneak in pizza and steak dinners for those who have pledged not to sit for 46 hours.

The volunteer committee members, like my son Daniel, who is a sophomore and made the unusual catapult to the rank of captain of the public relations team, get two four-hour sleep breaks. Not that they take full advantage of the down time, of course.

Dan Mele explains things to his old man.

Daniel led us a through a backstage tour of the maze of hallways and stations that make up THON and introduced us to a number of key players along the way.

And here is the thing: To a person every single volunteer and student we met embraced the challenge of the weekend with a smile and an enthusiasm reserved for little kids on Christmas Eve.

Penn State’s school spirit is legendary, bordering on cult-like. So chalk up that cheeriness and can-do spirit to youthful energy and naïveté and maybe whatever they put in the water in Happy Valley?


But that is the cynic’s view.

In a week scarred by the loss of 17 lives in a shooting at a Florida high school, visiting THON was a chance to renew my faith in selflessness and humanity’s desire to do good.

THON shows a cause can transcend politics, party affiliation, divisive beliefs and cultural and ethnic divides and we can rally to do something good FTK: For the Kids.

To donate, go to THON.org.