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