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What THON Means to Me

I’ll admit — and anyone who knows me can attest to this — I haven’t always been a huge fan of THON.

There isn’t a powerful enough adjective to describe the fact that Penn State students raise millions of dollars for the Four Diamonds Fund every year. Raising $10 million for childhood cancer research and support is something that is so unbelievably special and something that requires an extraordinary amount of time, effort, and love.

That being said, and I know it’s not the conventional wisdom, we can do better. THON has many problems that aren’t being fixed, because frankly, people are scared to talk negatively about THON. Someone once told me, “I hate THON the organization, but I love THON the cause.” Before everyone grabs their pitchforks and torches, let me just explain myself.

Although I am a sophomore, this weekend was my first time at THON. I watched from a distance last year, but this weekend, I wanted to experience it. I wanted to live it. I wanted THON to change my mind about the problems I perceived it to have. And so I didn’t leave the Bryce Jordan Center from 10 a.m. Friday until 6 p.m. Sunday.

I laughed, I cried, I danced, and I sang along with the best staff of 45 writers, editors, and photographers a guy could ever ask for. I was on the floor for the last 6 hours, and I jumped up and down and screamed when the total was announced just like everyone else. I wrote stories, I sent out Tweets, and I lived and breathed THON for 54 hours straight. I had an absolutely amazing time, and it was certainly very moving.

But I look at that sentence, and notice the key word. I — I had an amazing time. That’s a problem. I don’t matter at all, the dancers don’t matter, the THON Captains, Overalls, and committees don’t matter, Onward State doesn’t matter, and none of the 15,000 students in the building matter.

The kids matter.

We should not gloat about raising all this money, we should merely be thankful to have the opportunity to make a difference and hopefully that one day there won’t need to be a THON. But arrogance abounds.

Raising 10 million dollars is indeed something that Penn State should be very proud of, but at the end of the day, this isn’t about us at all. Not even a little bit. The true philanthropists are those who work to do good without seeking recognition. When I see people selling t-shirts with the THON total printed on the back and joining Facebook groups last year with the title “My school raised $9.56 million this weekend, what did yours do?” it upsets me.

This isn’t about you, this isn’t about me, this isn’t about us, this isn’t even really about Penn State — this is about all the kids whose lives that money changes. When people excessively gloat about THON, their true selfish intentions are revealed. My Twitter timeline and Facebook feed had no shortage of that type of content.

I hate that THON has turned into a popularity contest. From my perspective, the worst part of THON is right before the grand total is announced when the top ten organizations are recognized. It’s not about the organizations, it’s not about who raised more than someone else, it’s about the kids. Who raised the most money should be the last thing on anybody’s mind at that point.

I’ve heard stories of some organizations getting X-amount of dancers, while another organization has no dancers, simply because they didn’t raise enough money. Dancing has become a popularity contest, or a reward, in an event where personal accomplishments should be checked at the door.

The best part of THON is listening to the kids tell their stories and seeing them up on stage. It’s from those stories that we come to understand just what we’re fighting for, and from their joyful exuberance that we come to understand just who we’re fighting for. But rather than celebrating the children for 46 hours, we shoehorn them into specific times and sections of THON. If the event is truly “FTK,” then they should be front and center all weekend, not us. We should see the  kids on stage more than bands meant to entertain the people in the seats or on the floor.

Much of the problem lies within the structure of THON itself. I think THON handles fundraising very poorly. They try to micromanage, and in the process, turn down money that would otherwise be going to the Four Diamonds Fund. There are countless examples of this, but one in particular is the downtown Quiznos. During the weekend of the cancelled canning trip, the owner tweeted that he would donate 15% of sales to THON.  Within two hours, the tweets were deleted with a retraction. Since I was planning on stopping by, I asked the owner what happened. Nick told me that THON called him and demanded that he take down the tweet and said that he was not authorized to run a fundraiser. He said, “I understand there is a process for everything; however, I was just disappointed I couldn’t do more to help when we lost the canning weekend.”

Incidents like what happened at Quiznos should not happen, and from what I’ve been told, happen quite frequently. There is no reason–none–to force those who want nothing more than to help further the cause of THON to jump through hoops to do so. Every dollar in the final total is going to the best cause there is. To refuse to take someone’s money, because they didn’t think to jump over hurdles, is taking money away from some family who needs it, or some research project on the verge of a breakthrough. It’s anathema to the ideal THON sets forth, and there’s no place for bureaucratic nonsense in an organization like this.

It also upsets me that it takes a 46-hour dance marathon to get some people involved with THON and charity. Don’t get me wrong; there are so many genuine people involved with THON, including several very special people in this organization. But with every sincere person who joins THON, there is someone who joined because they wanted to hang out with their friends or for other selfish reasons.

There are the “milk and cookie” socials, drinking on canning trips with hot sorority chicks, and fundraisers-turned-ragers at frat houses. Trust me, there is no one who loves cookies, beer, and hot sorority chicks more than me. But there is a time and place for those indulgences, and that place is not THON.

There’s no problem with having fun at THON — I certainly did — I just ask this question: If the fundraising efforts of THON simply ended with someone handing over a check to the Four Diamonds Fund, with no fun marathon at the end or tangible way to show the world what we did, would student involvement be so high? I say no, and that’s a damn shame. The 46-hour marathon is necessary for the kids but it shouldn’t be necessary for us. We shouldn’t need to see Go Go Gadjet blast Party Rock Anthem for us to care.

One of the best things about THON weekend is the atmosphere of togetherness. It’s inspiring to see so many people working towards the same overall goal.  But that seems limited to the event. THON hasn’t become an introduction to philanthropy, it’s become and end-all be-all for charitable involvement for many people. There are so many other groups on campus working for great causes: Relay for Life, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Red Cross, the Special Olympics, and the list goes on and on. Instead of largely ignoring them, we should apply the philanthropic efforts THON teaches us and use them in other aspects of our lives during the entire year. True philanthropists work to do good with no one watching and no recognition — I ask that everyone who considers THON their yearly contribution to society look inside themselves and ask questions about their own motives.

There’s a reason other charities don’t have the amount of student involvement that THON does, and it’s not because of the quality of the charity. We shouldn’t care if the national media covers THON. It doesn’t matter how many people are watching on the live stream. I don’t care about how cold you were on a canning trip. It doesn’t matter who raised the most money, how many dancers your organization has, who sent you the best dancer mail, or how much your feet hurt. All we should care about is how our actions affect kids in their times of need. Let’s switch the focus from us to them — let’s make it a 46-hour KID marathon instead of a 46-hour DANCE marathon.

Some people will say that none of these problems matter — that the ends justify the means. Some people will say that I shouldn’t complain after Penn State just raised $10 million. And maybe they’re right, to an extent. But it’s that attitude that keeps THON from being the best it can be, and there’s never a better time for change than right now. That attitude fosters the status quo and prevents the motions of change. I know some of you will comment with personal stories and anecdotes about how THON has changed your life or someone else’s life, and that’s fine. That doesn’t take away from the fact that there are improvements that can be made.

I’ve always subscribed to process-based thinking. If you do everything correctly on the way there, more times than not, you’ll get the result you want. We already have a great result; imagine what we could do if we addressed these problems. Be proud of Penn State and be proud of yourself, but compartmentalize that pride and understand that you shouldn’t be there for self-inflation. You may not agree with all my problems with THON, but you should also have the understanding to accept that we are both working towards the same goal and have ability to think critically and honestly about THON. There needs to be an open conversation, and right now, there’s not.

I just ask, all of us, look deep inside yourself this next year. THON is great, but THON is not perfect — not even close. It is our responsibility to make THON the best it can possibly be. Throughout my time here, THON has not been receptive to change.  The people making the mistakes hide behind the “For the Kids” mantra, and push you off as being insensitive to the cause if you have problems with something THON does. That attitude needs to stop. Go into THON next year with a different attitude and a different perspective.

This thing we have here — this wonderful weekend every year where Penn State changes so many lives — the sky is truly the limit. We can get it there. I know we can. It just takes an open mind and a willingness to look at ourselves and make changes.

I think it’s a conversation worth having.

For the Kids. Forever and always. See you in 361 days.

About the Author

Kevin Horne

Kevin Horne was the editor of Onward State from 2012-2014 and currently holds the position of Managing Editor Emeritus, which is a fake title he made up. He graduated from Penn State with degrees journalism and political science in 2014 and is currently seeking his J.D. at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. A third generation Penn Stater from Williamsport, Pa., Kevin is also the president of the graduate student government. Email: [email protected]

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