There’s a particular weekend each February that means the world to Jack Sylves, a 6-year-old from State College, and his 7-year-old sister, Marlowe. It’s the annual THON Weekend, an unforgettable opportunity for kids like Jack and Marlowe to run around Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center, basking in the attention of college students who are enduring a 46-hour dance marathon.
“They talk about it all the time,” says Scott Sylves, their dad. “After our first THON in 2019 they asked if we could go again the next weekend. Their favorite part has always been the love and support they feel from the dancers on the floor. They love shooting them with water guns and silly string.”
This year’s THON Weekend will take place February 19-21, but because of COVID-19 concerns it will differ from those in the past. Yes, Jack and other kids who are fighting cancer will still be showered with love. But folks like Scott Sylves and his wife, Monica Eakin, won’t be in Jordan Center, and neither will the legions of THON dancers who raise money for anti-cancer research and treatment.
Instead, families being supported by THON and its partner organization, Four Diamonds, will interact with each other and with program participants through cyber connections—including two state-of-the- art robots.
Dancers, meanwhile, will also participate from their homes, and they will limit their exertions just a bit. Because THON cannot ensure proper resources to support them throughout the grueling 46 hours, this year’s dancers will only be on their feet for a portion of the event.
A CHALLENGING YEAR
Although THON has complied with social distancing mandates throughout this year, its leaders (all Penn State students) have been determined to maintain a full-fledged “For the Kids” commitment.
Says Katie Solomon, the executive director for THON 2021, “We started off our year in March 2020, just as everything was changing due to COVID-19 and had no idea what was yet to come. With nearly 50 years of experience and tradition behind us, our world was flipped upside-down. However, what will never change is our ability to financially and emotionally support families impacted by childhood cancer—nothing can take that away.”
Although COVID has created challenges throughout the ranks of THON, the Technology Committee has probably faced the greatest demand for adaptation. Virtually all of THON’s training, internal communications and fund-raising efforts—including THON Weekend—have been shifted to digital platforms.
“It took us a little while to process the situation when we started the year,” says Andy Donato, director of the 24-person Technology Committee. “But then it was off to the races. And everyone was incredibly supportive on social media. Cancer hasn’t stopped for the pandemic, and the fight needs to go on.”
VIRTUAL BUT VITAL
Will THON Weekend still be a memorable event? Perhaps a better question would be, “Why not?”
According to Nicco Rosato, a member of THON’s media relations team, “THON hasn’t always been in the Bryce Jordan Center. (Previous locations included the HUB Ballroom, White Building and Rec Hall.) Different generations have had THONs in different places, and we’ll be able to have our generation’s THON in this digital realm, which I think is exciting.”
THON Weekend, with the theme “Rise and Unify” will be presented via livestream from 6 p.m. on Feb. 19 to 4 p.m. on Feb. 21. The stream can be accessed at www.THON.org and a comprehensive spectator guide will be accessible on THON’s website with resources on how to participate during the weekend.
Most of the favorite elements from a traditional Bryce Jordan Center THON will be presented. That means online viewers will see the First Line Dance at 6:15 p.m. on Friday, Dancer Pageant at 11 a.m. on Saturday , Kids Talent Show at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Pep Rally (with Penn State athletes demonstrating dance routines) at 7 p.m on Saturday, and Family Hour (with Four Diamonds families sharing their personal stories) at 12:05 p.m. on Sunday. And no one will want to miss Total Reveal (the financial representation of THON’s yearlong fundraising efforts) at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
Although kids like Jack and Marlowe won’t get to shoot their squirt guns at in-person dancers, they will certainly respond to the magic of THON’s new talking robots. Not yet named, these 40-pound telepresence robots will move across the floor of Bryce Jordan Center with surprising speed, offering Four Diamonds kids a chance for two-way communication with special guests.
“I am personally looking forward to seeing the robots in action,” Donato says. “They are quite cool.”
And of course, a digital program spares everyone the stress of finding space for one’s car in the BJC lot or a place for one’s backside in the arena. There will be room for everyone and an enhanced opportunity for folks around the globe to participate. Last year, the livestream offered by 46 Live (THON’s student run production team) logged more than 170,000 unique viewers from 30 nations. No doubt, those numbers will increase greatly this year when the online resources are much more extensive and better designed.
“We can bring THON Weekend to anyone who wants to participate,” says Samantha Koon, public relations director for THON 2021. Adds Donato, “We’ve learned strategies of engagement this year that opens us up to opportunities to reach people outside of State College and outside Pennsylvania—anyone with a computer.”
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An effort that was once called the “Interfraternity Council Dance Marathon” was launched in 1973—my junior year at Penn State. Even though I was a fraternity member, I basically ignored the marathon as did most other students. Not only was the Dance Marathon a new activity on campus, but it doled out money to various charities and thus lacked a clear purpose.
But on March 22, 1978, some Dance Marathon leaders were driving to Hershey for a Four Diamonds appreciation dinner when they were hit head-on by another car. Several of the students were seriously injured and Kevin Steinberg, the IFC’s dynamic vice president, was killed. The tragedy shook the entire campus, but as I noted in my column three years ago, it revolutionized the effort that eventually became known as “THON.”
The next year, the marathon’s leaders decided not to donate their proceeds to a new cause. Rather, they chose to honor Steinberg’s memory by continuing to partner with Four Diamonds. And I believe that ongoing commitment to fight “For the Kids” was a key step in THON’s remarkable growth.
I have one other THON-related observation to offer. My wife and I were living in Texas in late 2011 when media outlets became obsessed with the Sandusky scandal. In that context, I frequently heard Happy Valley condemned for having a “football culture”—as if football was inherently evil. Although I understood why the Sandusky story got such big play, I wondered why there was never a peep about Penn State’s positives. In particular, I was puzzled that the world’s largest student-run philanthropy—raising some $10 million per year to fight pediatric cancer—was never even mentioned. And that’s when I decided to write about THON whenever the opportunity arose.
* * *
July 18, 2018 was the day that Scott Sylves and Monica Eakin received a diagnosis that no parents ever want to hear. For several months, Jack had been experiencing leg pains and low-grade fevers, waking up in the middle of the night. After visiting various physicians and hearing such diagnoses as “growing pains” or a hip ailment called toxic synovitis, Jack’s parents got a scarier verdict.
Jack, just 3-years-old, had leukemia. And it was a rare subtype of the most common childhood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Not so many years ago, this subtype (Ph+ALL) would have been very difficult to treat with standard chemotherapy, but a newly developed class of drugs—used in combination with chemotherapy—has created a more favorable prognosis. That was the good news, but who wants to see their toddler go through chemotherapy?
UPS AND DOWNS
“I remember the first couple of days of that treatment, wanting to pull my hair out,” Scott says. “Although we have relatively good odds in this day and age, every little thing just weighed on us. Fortunately, when we met with the social workers in Hershey, they told us that because of THON and the Four Diamonds, we wouldn’t have to worry about any medical bills. At that time, with a whirlwind of things going on, that was nice to hear.”
The first six months of Jack’s treatments were the toughest, marked by periods of two- or three-week inpatient treatment at Hershey Medical Center. The last of those treatments took place on Jan. 13, 2019, a date that was especially memorable for Scott and Monica. “That was about a month before our first THON,” Scott says, “and it was my birthday. That was a nice present for me that year.”
According to Scott, dramatic ups and downs are normal for families who are fighting pediatric cancer. “You don’t know what’s coming next,” he notes. “And one of the more interesting aspects is that your key source of information is a four or five or six-year old. So every time he says, ‘Oh, my leg hurts,’ you worry.”
IN REMISSION OR NOT?
By mid-July of last year, Jack’s condition had improved noticeably. In fact, having finished two years of treatment and producing good lab numbers, he seemed to be entering into remission. “We were ready to celebrate,” Scott says, “to ring the bell down at Hershey and say he’s in remission.”
But after driving to Hershey and getting Jack’s blood drawn, Scott and Monica got shocking news. Jack’s lab numbers had gone the wrong way, suggesting a relapse.
“That just destroyed us,” Scott recalls. “We tried not to let on with him because we knew that’s not good. So we came home to State College to see my family and Monica’s family and just be together. Then, the next day, we went back to Hershey for a spinal biopsy.”
The biopsy was then sent off for evaluation—a relatively complex matter in Jack’s case. Nearly 10 days later, the results came back clean, ruling out a relapse for the time being.
“The doctors said this was just a blip on the screen,” Scott says. “It was some sort of response to him coming off the treatments where his white blood cells just went a little crazy. So today, I think he is technically in remission, but we’re not throwing that word around yet. Like the doctors say, ‘Nothing’s easy with Jack.’ Even though his tests continue to come back clean, he has a complicated case so we’re always a little worried about things. But he’s a different kid than he’s been for the last two years—running around, healthy looking, doing great.”
If you ask Scott Sylves—and I did—to describe THON’s greatest boost to his family, he’ll give you a surprising answer. Rather than pointing to the considerable financial resources that have come from the THON/Four Diamonds partnership, Scott points to the emotional support given to his family.
“It’s hard to say this because I don’t know what things would have looked like financially without them,” the Penn State staff employee says. (According to THON.org, the average cost per-day of a hospital stay for a child with cancer is a staggering $40,000. “But the emotional support has been tenfold more meaningful than the financial, because the emotional struggle has been 10 times worse. The students have been and are amazing.”
Although Scott and Monica are thoroughly impressed by the entire body of THON volunteers, he offers special appreciation to those from Schreyer Honors College, the campus organization assigned by THON to focus attention on the Sylves family.
“They’re great with the kids,” he says. “They’ve done so many wonderful things with them. Not just during THON Weekend, but at other events like the family carnivals. You should see how much fun the kids have with those kids from Schreyer.
“I remember a day at the Creamery. We went there with the whole group (from Schreyer) and ran around playing with the kids. These students were preparing for finals, but they took time out of their schedules to literally spend two or three hours with our kids running around the yard, eating ice cream, playing tag, and doing all kinds of silly things.
“Even this year with everything that’s been going on, with everybody being cooped up, the THON kids got together with us virtually on Zoom. And they played with the kids for hours. They really do make them light up. Through this whole thing they’ve been amazing. Amazing. I can’t stress that enough.”
LOVING THE ENTIRE FAMILY
Scott has been impressed by THON’s ability to focus on his entire family. “Whether it’s Schreyer or the February event or the 5K, it’s not all about Jack,” he says. “Whatever they’ve done, they’ve made it about all of us. We’re all fighting this together, so that’s awesome.
“As for my daughter, this whole experience has affected her greatly even though we try to protect our children from everything. Our Schreyer Family, as I call them, they’re always sending little presents to both Jack and Marlowe for a birthday or just at random times. Just little things to help light them up. That’s really powerful; it just makes the kids so happy.
“You know people say all the time, ‘Oh, I can’t imagine what you’re going through.’ Well, it’s exactly what you think. It’s awful. It’s a horrible experience. But when you love your children, you just do whatever you have to do. But I can’t stress this enough, whether it’s THON, whether it’s friends or whether it’s the State College community, they’re helping to lift us up. Other people are helping us be our best for our kids and helping us through this.”
APPRECIATION FOR THON
Both raised in State College, Scott and Monica are as townie as townie can be. Both are State High grads (Scott served as class president for the Class of 1996; Monica graduated in 1997), and he graduated from Penn State (2001 in journalism) while she earned her nursing degree from Rhode Island College. His father operated the Boalsburg Steak House—the forerunner of today’s Kelly’s Steak and Seafood—and her father, Tom Eakin, served as Penn State’s vice president of student affairs.
But even with such deep Happy Valley roots, Scott notes that he and Monica never quite comprehended the impact of THON. “We never fully understood what it meant,” he says. “In this town, you’re proud of these kids (THON volunteers) and you see all this money raised, but it never really hit home. But this experience (with Jack) has really opened my eyes and I’ve tried to help open other people’s eyes to how amazing this organization is.
“We hope more people can become aware of what THON does—to truly understand what it means to the survival of families like ours. It really is helping families like ours survive emotionally and physically.”