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Striking a Tone: How THON Acknowledged the Penn State Crisis, Kept a Four Diamonds Focus

on February 23, 2012 12:36 PM

Front and center at the Bryce Jordan Center last weekend, the imagery was strikingly familiar.

Two dramatically oversized ribbons appeared as backdrops behind the main stage, new additions to the set-up at the Penn State Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon.

They carried the same form, the same shape as the blue ribbons that mark the fight against child sexual abuse. Those ribbons -- the anti-abuse ribbons -- have appeared across the Penn State community since November, when abuse charges were filed against former football coach Jerry Sandusky.

But the ribbons that appeared at THON were gold -- not blue -- as organizers noted as a post-THON press conference Sunday. Gold ribbons are a symbol of the fight against pediatric cancer.

Elaine Tanella, the THON overall chairwoman, said organizers wanted to bring a new visual element to the THON scenery and to promote awareness of their core cause in the process.

Since the late 1970s, THON proceeds have gone to The Four Diamonds Fund, which supports pediatric-cancer treatment and research. The event has evolved into perhaps the most high-profile, youth-centered effort at Penn State, tied tightly to the university's popular identity.

That institutional identity has come under close scrutiny since the youth-abuse and related cover-up charges were filed in early November.

The ordeal left THON with a tough question: How to strike the right tone publicly in light of the university's ongoing crisis?

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It was, Tanella said, "obviously a very delicate issue."

In a brief interview, she said the crisis has changed the Penn State experience. THON leaders decided to acknowledge the university crisis in the event's official line dance, which highlights news and other happenings from the past year.

Lyrics for the 2012 line dance read in part: "Candlelights shining through; we stand together, wearing blue. We are ... FTK (for the kids), dancing to a brigher day."

At the same time, THON leadership decided to keep its fundraising efforts focused exclusively on pediatric cancer, said Tanella and Kirsten Quisenberry, the overall public-relations chairwoman.

The needs of families dealing with pediatric cancer haven't diminished, Quisenberry said. And nor, she said, has the need for research on that front.

Tanella said THON also had the support and encouragement of the university leadership in keeping a focus on its traditional goals.

"We work very closely with the university," Tanella said.

Reached this week, Penn State spokeswoman Jill Shockey said it made sense for THON to maintain its established mission.

"It's what they're there for; it's what they've been working year-round, including this year, to support," Shockey said. "It makes perfect sense for them to continue in that vein."

She said the university is "thrilled for the students' efforts and inspired by what they do, especially as volunteers.

"This is not their primary focus; they're here to get an education," Shockey said. "But the fact that they're able to do this in the midst of their studies is inspiring."

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