by Stephen Harrington
Before I begin, I’d like to note that I was a student at Penn State from 2012-2016, while the practice of canning was still alive and well. Before the final two trips were cancelled my senior year following the canning-related car accident that killed Penn State student Vitalya “Tally” Sepot, I got the chance to raise money FTK by participating in seven canning trips, and I loved every minute of it. The roads trips, waking up at the crack of dawn after a less-than-quality night’s sleep on a floor or couch, trying to stay warm by dancing on the sidewalk at an intersection, all the while knowing that what you’re doing will bring a smile to a Four Diamonds child’s face — these are memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
My knee-jerk reaction when the THON Executive Committee announced that they were going to permanently phase out canning was, like many of you, disbelief and disappointment. As tragic as Tally’s death was, car accidents can happen at any time, right? Canning couldn’t be blamed for an accident that could just as easily happen on a return from winter or spring break, right? At the time those were the thoughts that circulated in my head, and I graduated doubting the Executive Committee’s decision and feeling sorry for the future Penn State students who would never get to go canning themselves.
Now, some time has passed, and THON just staged its last ever canning weekend. This juncture undoubtedly represents the end of an era for THON, but the more I think about the issue, the more I agree with the decision to put canning behind us. Especially as I constantly read opinions about how ending canning was a “misguided mistake,” I think we would all do well to take a step back, put ourselves in the shoes of those who made this decision, and remember why we THON in the first place.
What is important to remember when considering this decision is that Tally Sepot was not the first Penn State student to be tragically killed by a canning-related car accident. In December of 2011, Courtney O’Bryan was killed on the way to Buffalo, NY for a canning trip, and every year since, THON has honored her memory with an award presentation. Tally Sepot is now honored every year at THON as well, and while remembering these two deceased students is absolutely the right thing to do, it also means that these two deaths are permanently associated with canning and with THON.
Although there are many occasions that call for students to travel in cars in and out of State College, such as breaks, ends of semesters, and away football games, canning weekends were always a different animal. Canning weekends saw students driving other students almost exclusively, more often than not with as many people as the car would allow — all with a certain energy and excitement that came with road tripping and taking a break from the usual weekend. All of these students packed into cars and hopped up on the hype of the canning trip is destined to lead to bad decisions, such as speeding, careless driving, and neglecting to wear a seatbelt. We can convince ourselves up and down that accidents involving students are random and can occur anytime, but, in my opinion, suggesting that canning is not at least partially to blame for the deaths of Tally Sepot and Courtney O’Bryan is misguided.
While it may be true that a fatal car accident could occur on any day of the year, there are two prominent recent examples of students dying on THON canning trips that are impossible to ignore. After the first one, the Executive Committee limited the canning trips to earlier in the year to avoid icy road conditions, but after the second one, they were faced with a difficult situation. Anyone who has ever participated in THON knows that it is a celebration of life — it’s about encouraging children affected by cancer to keep fighting and keep smiling, and providing a necessary reprieve for them and their families. For the sake of the cause, we could not risk another student death associated with canning or THON, or else the celebration of life label would inevitably be called into question, and the most important goal and message of THON could be obscured. Bearing that in mind, deciding to move on from canning makes a lot more sense.
In the time since the decision was made to leave canning behind us, I asked myself why this particular fundraising method was so popular and beloved in the first place. Was it strictly the money that was raised on trips to help fight pediatric cancer and brighten the lives of kids? Maybe, for some, it was. For others, though, including me, the principal draw of a canning trip was the social interaction, the joy of being involved and making friends, the bonds we formed with the people on our trips, and the countless memories and stories that we will tell for years. Raising money FTK was always a close second, but it was not the main reason I would leave State College three times a year and go stand on a street corner dancing around with a can. If we can all agree that we THON, more than anything else, for the kids, then why do we mourn canning at all? There are countless other ways to fundraise, many of which are in practice now and many of which are yet to be tapped into. Sure, no fundraising method raised more money than canning, and sure, THON totals are generally down with fewer canning trips, but knowing this, why would we sit back and surrender? Why would we give up, and say, “We will never raise as much money without canning,” or “THON will never be the same without it”? Instead, why don’t we take the end of canning as a challenge to find new, creative ways to raise money to pick up where canning left off? Why don’t we spend time thinking of how to safely engage students, faculty, alumni, and the public with opportunities to contribute to a very worthwhile cause? Somewhere out there in the mind of a Penn State student is an idea for the next big fundraising tradition that will be just as widespread, as fun, and as effective as canning was — all it will take is accepting that the era of canning is over, remembering that we do what we do for the kids, and putting our heads together to find a solution.
I hope if you were originally disappointed, or even angry, at the decision to phase out canning, that you’ve re-evaluated your perspective. Before long, canning will be a distant memory, and we can move 100% of our focus onto what matters — the cause, the families, and the kids.