At 6 p.m. on Friday, hundreds Penn State students got on their feet, like in so many years past, to kick off THON Weekend.
But this year, the 592 students selected to be THON dancers weren’t in a packed Bryce Jordan Center as they raise money and awareness for the Four Diamonds at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital and its fight against pediatric cancer.
Instead they were at home as THON went virtual for the first time in its history because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is just an incredible feeling knowing that regardless of the fact that there might be a pandemic and everything else that’s happening in the world right now, we are still managing to support families and spread awareness of what we’re doing and also raise funds for these families as well as research,” Penn State senior and THON public relations director Sam Koon said on Friday afternoon.
First organized in 1973, THON has solely supported the Four Diamonds since 1977, raising more than $180 million to date. That money ensures that the families of pediatric cancer patients at Penn State Hershey never see a bill for their care while also funding research.
Last year alone, the student-run philanthropy’s year-round efforts raised $11.7 million.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring, the organization already was well-positioned to continue its fundraising endeavor. Over the past several years THON has moved more aggressively toward online fundraising — gone are the days of students “canning” on street corners and outside supermarkets across Pennsylvania and the East Coast.
In 2018, THON moved its primary fundraising method to DonorDrive, an online peer-to-peer giving platform that allows student volunteers, alumni and supporters to create donor pages that can be used to fundraise all over the world.
“We have really grown to learn how to utilize and leverage this platform to fundraise, spread awareness and share our mission,” senior and THON executive director Katie Solomon said. “Because we have about three years under our belts and we’ve gotten really comfortable and good at using the platform, when the pandemic hit, luckily, a lot of our fundraising was not super impacted because our practices had already been done remotely and safely.”
THON also faces the challenge of fundraising in a world rocked by the economic impacts of the pandemic. But, Koon said, volunteers have given their all and stayed focused on supporting their Four Diamonds families.
“Every year we start at zero dollars and we move up from there. This year, whatever the total may be, it’s a mark of success for what we’ve accomplished this year,” she said. “We’re in a world where people are struggling with different kinds of things than we usually have. Regardless of what the total is, supporting families… is our first priority and we will do everything we can to make sure these families feel supported through funding, through emotional support and also just continuing to grow and expand the THON community as a whole.”
Providing that emotional support has been a key component of THON’s relationship with Four Diamonds. Most years, it’s fully evident in the Bryce Jordan Center as dancers and volunteers spend the weekend sharing both fun and emotional moments with the kids and their families.
Those bonds are built over time as individual organizations are paired with families and they grow closer over years. This year, of course, in-person activities weren’t an option, as already vulnerable cancer patients cannot risk being exposed to the virus.
Instead, they’ve made heavy use of technology to stay connected. In October, for example, THON would have typically hosted its Harvest Day with Four Diamonds families, going to a pumpkin patch, taking hayrides and doing fall-themed activities. For this past year’s Harvest Day, packages with pumpkins, paints, snacks, crafts and more were sent to families to share in activities virtually with THON volunteers through Zoom. One Four Diamonds family member even performed a live concert, take requests on the spot.
“We decided to change up the event but still try to make the integral feeling exist there,” Solomon said. “That’s just one example of things that have been happening every week since. Even when we don’t have that tangible support, the phone calls and the Zooms have gone such a long way to catch up and see how people are doing. For a lot of our families, isolation is not new to them when they’re in active treatment or even after. Because of the effects of treatment sometimes this is their norm.”
Solomon added that the work the Family Relations Committee has done over the past year will pay dividends in the long run, even when COVID is no longer an impediment.
“What I’m really thankful for is the time that the family relations THON chairs have put into making this year still so special for our families, not only for the support that it’s provided now but also for the support that it’s going to provide in the longterm,” Solomon said. “We’re better equipped to support our families from a distance more than I think we’ve ever been before, even when we’re able to return to in-person activities.”
For this weekend, THON has plenty planned to engage with families and supporters. A small crew of volunteers and staff are in the Jordan Center for events live streamed from the stage, but no spectators or dancers are present. Still, the weekend’s most popular traditional events will take place and organizers have special interactions planned. The THON 46 livestream has wall-to-wall performances, features and activities.
“Our mission hasn’t changed and that means we are doing everything we can to make sure that we are carrying out that mission through this virtual THON weekend, through our other virtual events throughout the year and just making sure that we’re bringing this magic as far as we can,” Koon said.
Suzanne Graney, executive director of Four Diamonds, said it’s a testament to the commitment and perseverance of THON students.
“Very quickly we realized cancer doesn’t stop just because COVID has arrived. We have been so grateful to THON that they recognized that too,” Graney said. “When they chose their theme this year, ‘Rise and Unify,’ we talked about the obstacles that can happen at any time that we never know what we’re going to encounter and how important it is to rise to the occasion and find solutions. I have watched this team of students really find creative ways to make it past obstacles. They have been extraordinarily resilient, really determined to make something great happen. I’m excited to see what will unfold for everybody online this weekend.”
Even beyond being at home instead of the Jordan Center, things will be a bit different for the dancers, too. Normally they would spend the weekend on their feet with a Dancer Relations Committee member at their side to offer support and attend to their needs.
Because that in-person support isn’t there this year, dancers will have designated break times between midnight and 6 a.m. (and the THON livestream won’t air new content during that time). Dancers are still paired with a Dancer Relations Committee member who is “just a phone call or text away,” Solomon said. And for anything dancers might need throughout the weekend, contactless drop-off options have been arranged.
“We’ve found ways to adapt and ensure that everyone can still have the same connection,” Solomon said. “The most beautiful thing about THON to me sometimes is its ability to bring people together who would have never met otherwise and would have been lifelong strangers. We wanted to do everything we could to ensure that those moments and opportunities to make lifelong new best friends or catch up with the old ones still existed.”
Charles Millard will be among the thousands watching online throughout the weekend. Millard and his wife, Irma, co-founded Four Diamonds in 1972 in honor of their son Christopher, who died of cancer at the age of 11.
Millard has been to all 44 THON weekends since the partnership with Four Diamonds began. This year, he’ll be watching from his home in Washington state.
“I’ve been to 44 of them and I’ve seen everything, but this is all new to me,” Millard said. “I have great faith in [them].”
“I wish that you have the greatest success this weekend,” he told THON volunteers. “I’ll be watching all weekend long. For a 93-year-old it’s pretty amazing for me to sit here and watch you do your thing. It’s just amazing.”
See all of StateCollege.com’s THON coverage at statecollege.com/news/thon