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Patty Kleban: It’s Time to Reconsider THON Canning

by on December 08, 2011 2:15 AM

This past weekend, 18-year-old Penn State freshman Courtney O’Bryan lost her life in a car accident outside of Bradford, Pa. According to the news reports, Courtney was thrown from the car when it hit black ice. The other four occupants of the car, also Penn State students, were injured.   

Courtney was on a canning trip for THON.

If you don’t know, THON is touted as the “largest student-run philanthropy in the world.”

THON started at Penn State in 1973 as a dance marathon organized by fraternities and sororities to raise money for charity. It has grown into a year-round, university-wide effort to support The Four Diamonds Fund, a program that serves children with cancer at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center.

According to figures released by THON, last year the amount raised was more than $9 million dollars, bringing the overall total to $78 million dollars. THON records indicate that about 97 percent of money raised actually goes to the Four Diamond Fund – an exemplary donation-to-administrative expense ratio for any charity. 

As an undergraduate student in the 1980s, I helped raise money in the early years of THON. I served on the morale committee for my sorority.  We canned on the corner in front of Moyer Jewelers on Allen Street (when THON rules allowed it).  We sent donation request letters to our families and asked businesses to support THON. We filled the White Building stands to cheer on the dancers.

As a faculty member, I’ve supported my students who were involved in THON. I have looked the other way at missed classes for THON activities.

One year, I accepted the invitation to take my own children “on the floor” at Rec Hall during THON Faculty Hour to show our support. I have driven the van for students in my classes to tour the pediatric units at Hershey and to meet with the Child Life Specialists whose mission it is to serve the needs of their young patients.

As a parent of two sorority members, I have donated to THON and visited the Bryce Jordan Center while my kids were in the stands supporting their dancers. One year, I also drove to New Jersey on a Saturday to pick up a sick THON canner who, the day before, didn’t feel comfortable telling her THON Chair that she was too ill to go. Under protest, I have dropped off long johns and extra money to help them prepare to go canning.

For years, I have kept my fingers crossed as first, my students, and then, my children and their friends piled in cars to go canning for THON.

What is canning?

The THON committee identifies two weekends during fall semester and one weekend in January as canning weekends. Each organization involved in THON then assigns its members to specific canning destinations all over the northeast. Someone from either the organization or a paired THON organization volunteers to host a canning trip at a parent’s or other family member’s house outside of Centre County.

The hosts are asked to provide a place for the canners to sleep on Friday and Saturday nights after the canners spend the day taking in money. Most host families offer food and fun for the crew as well. On Sunday, the canners return to Penn State and the money that they raised is put into their organization’s fund total.

The grand total raised through canning and a myriad of other fundraising events is announced at the conclusion of THON weekend in February and the organizations that raise the most money are crowned the “winners.”  

Although THON organizers have tried to de-emphasize the focus on beating the previous year’s total, the annual picture of THON kids holding up the final numbers serves to pull in more excitement, more volunteers -- and more money -- for the next year.  

Despite the occasional grumble about the perception that THON is a Greek-only effort and concerns that the dedication to THON puts academics on the backburner until after February, most would agree that our student population putting its collective energy into this incredible cause is a positive thing.    

I’m a THON supporter.

THON has become such a part of our culture, not only on campus but also in the treatment of pediatric cancer. It has become almost sacrilegious to question it. 


I think it’s time to reconsider canning.

Faculty and parents have raised concerns over the years about canning for a number of reasons.

First are the risks in sending the some of the very same young adults whose judgment we question on any given weekend out onto our roadways and into cities to collect money. They sometimes go without the approved solicitation permits.

They often stand in the middle of busy intersections and approach cars stopped at red lights, even when THON rules – and local law enforcement - say they can’t. They’ve been known to knock on doors in neighborhoods for which they are unfamiliar.   

The real concerns, however, are related to safe travel. Unfamiliar roads and road conditions, winter weather and night driving, coupled with young drivers and cars filled with their friends is a tragedy in the making. Experts tell us that increasing the number of passengers in a car with a young driver increases the probability of accidents at almost the same level as drinking and driving.   

When raising a concern, we should always offer a solution.

Can we find a corporate sponsor -- perhaps a car or life insurance company -- who might agree to replace the amount raised each year from canning? Can we ask people to each donate a dollar to THON when they pay for their PSU sports tickets? What about a THON checkbox on tuition bills? Can graduating seniors assign their leftover activity fees to THON?

Multiply the number of organizations that are raising money for THON times the number of cars times three canning weekends, and the potential risk, if not the waste of gasoline, suggests that there  has to be a safer and more efficient way to do this.

As an alternative to all of those cars on the road, what about busing canners to approved areas and enforcing the regulations to keep them out of the traffic?     

Proponents of canning will argue that canning is part of the THON experience.  They will point out that statistically the number of THON-related car accidents has been insignificant. Others will say that accidents can happen anywhere or anytime. From the viewpoints of young adults, the amount of money raised by canning may be seen to outweigh any risk.

In this mother’s opinion, the loss of one life is too many.

According to The Four Diamonds Fund’s 2009-2010 annual report, of the $11 million it received, $8.5 million came from THON.

Of that money, 4 percent ($523,000) went to funds for expenses not covered by insurance for the pediatric patients and their families. An additional 9 percent went to staffing support (i.e. salaries and benefits for Child Life Specialists). The rest went to cancer research and research support.    

Does the pressure to increase that total every year put more Penn State students at risk?


I did not know Courtney O’Bryan, but I am praying for her family.

I am praying for her SDT sisters and her friends, especially the other young people who were with her last weekend. I think about that phone call that is a parent’s worst nightmare.

I think of a life taken too early.

Courtney’s family has requested that people who would like to honor Courtney make a donation to The Four Diamonds Fund  in her name. 

THON is amazing. THON does great things for children and families in times of need. THON is helping to find the cure for cancer. THON is Penn State at its best. 

THON can be life-changing for everyone involved.

Let’s work together to make sure those who are working FOR THE KIDS are safe.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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