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THON: For Which Kids?

I first experienced the dark side of THON during my freshman English seminar. My class was tasked with finding a thought-provoking idea for a public deliberation. One of my classmates suggested that we discuss the problems with THON. Severe backlash immediately followed, and the idea was dismissed.

This surprisingly bitter encounter led me to an article Onward State publishes every year around THON weekend, entitled “Why I Don’t THON.” The article brought up valid concerns, but I found it odd that the students it cited chose to remain anonymous. When I checked the comments sections, I found out why. The responses ranged from crude remarks to blatant threats. This sequence of events shattered my image of THON and forced me to start questioning it.

I do admire the relationships forged between Penn State students and THON families: these bonds are more valuable than any donations and help families in their darkest hours. That being said, I do not think THON is infallible. Like any large organization, THON has flaws — and these shortcomings are magnified by the fact that no one is willing to talk about them.

After almost four years at University Park, I have concluded that the fundamental problem with THON is its extremely cultish and dangerously dogmatic culture. The raw emotions and pitched fervor of THON participants match those of the most strident religious zealots and political partisans. As a result, no one dares challenge THON. This toxic feedback loop of constant affirmation has prevented the Penn State community from asking long-overdue questions about the world’s largest student-run philanthropy. Questions like:

Where does the money from THON go?

THON’s sole beneficiary, Four Diamonds, is not a nonprofit or independent foundation. It is, in fact, a division of Penn State. While all of the money raised at THON is earmarked for pediatric cancer, it can only be used by Penn State and its affiliates. This leads to two serious implications. First, nearly 60 cents of every dollar raised by THON goes to research that is not the best in the world. Unlike federal grants and most major cancer foundations, Four Diamonds fails to support the most promising and deserving projects. Instead, Four Diamonds’ funds only support research by Penn State doctors and faculty members with no other merit-based funding. Second, and perhaps more troubling, THON children and their families only receive support from Four Diamonds as long as they stay at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Since Four Diamonds is really just another name for Penn State, if a THON child needed to seek treatment outside of the Penn State system, they would lose their financial support.

Why do THON?

The relationship between Four Diamonds and Penn State raises the question of whether donating millions of dollars and thousands of hours every year to THON is really the most effective use of resources. THON finances research that is not the most cutting edge and only provides a relatively small amount of conditional aid to pediatric cancer patients: according to Four Diamond’s own financial statements, less than 20% of THON proceeds go towards patient care and family support. Cancer research, unlike research for many other deadly and debilitating diseases, already receives billions of dollars in federal support and private donations. So, in the grand scheme of things, THON is a pretty inefficient endeavor whose funds could have a much greater impact on improving human lives if directed elsewhere.

Furthermore, in all the hype around THON, it seems that no one stops to ask why a fundraiser to financially support pediatric cancer patients is even necessary. THON children and their families depend on charity because society has failed them. Unlike every other developed nation, the United States’ lack of a universal healthcare system leaves pediatric cancer patients and their families on thin financial ice, dependent on private fundraisers like THON. Perhaps instead of planning a giant dance party, maybe pediatric cancer patients would be better off if THON’s almost twenty thousand volunteers campaigned for policy change that would alleviate their financial burden in the first place.

For which kids?

The many unsolved problems facing THON begs the question of whether the event is really For the Kids? It’s no secret that THON is a major part of social life at Penn State. This might not be a problem if students were honest about their motives. Are all the countless alcohol-fueled parties thrown by THON orgs and committees For the Kids? Are all of the self-congratulatory social media posts, asserting moral superiority, For the Kids?

I would say they are for some kids, just not the kids with cancer.

On this campus, you can seemingly do or say whatever you want as long it includes those three magic letters: FTK. This slogan, when expressed in solidarity with pediatric cancer patients, can be empowering. On the other hand, it starts to lose meaning when used to justify a night of binge drinking or to get more likes on Instagram. In many ways, FTK has become a pretext for otherwise self-indulgent and superficial behavior. It allows people to feel good about themselves even when they are taking shots downtown or using cancer patients as props in their photos. At Penn State, as long as you wear a golden ribbon, you are impervious to criticism — no matter how much you may deserve it.

I support helping pediatric cancer patients and their families, but I can’t support the toxic culture of blind loyalty and willful ignorance that defines THON. In the past, when the Penn State community has failed to critically examine “infallible” institutions, the consequences have been tragic. As a university, we cannot make the same mistake again. We need to stop drinking the blue and white Kool-Aid, take a step back, and ask the hard questions, no matter how uncomfortable they make us.

This post was submitted as part of our community content program. You can have your content published on Onward State by submitting it here.

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About the Author

Jack Shean

Jack Shean is a senior in the Paterno Fellows program studying history, philosophy, and political science. He helped organize and sat on the panel for the Paterno Fellows program's 2019 current issues forum, "THON: For Which Kids?"

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