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Why I Don’t THON

If you’ve ever read Onward State, especially on THON Weekend, then you’ve probably read a post titled Why I Don’t THON. Each year, we get comments saying it’s dated, needs to be modernized, or that we just need to stop posting it.

I dreamed of reinventing that post since last year by talking to new people who weren’t involved in THON and asking them why not. The only people I knew of, though, were my friends and acquaintances. Asking them to talk for the article violates some of the most basic laws of journalism. 

On the other hand, if I put out a public plea for those who would talk, I’d only get people who were incredibly passionate about why they didn’t THON — participation bias, for those who have any type of statistics background. 

Eventually, I realized I could just sit down and write the article myself.

Let’s back up about a decade. As a disclaimer, I’m not telling you this story for pity. I’m telling you so that you can hopefully understand my feelings a little better. Be patient with me. 

When I was 10, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I had two tumors, one of which was wrapped around my trachea and severely constricted my airflow. Putting me under sedation to take a biopsy was absolutely necessary to start treatment but came with a 90% risk of trachea collapse (and subsequent death). 

Obviously, I survived (thank you, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), but it put my family through the wringer. After the initial surgery, I endured four months of chemotherapy, made even more stressful by the three-hour trip to and from the hospital for each round of chemo. 

As a result, my family and I are no strangers to the trials and tribulations that come along with childhood cancer. The summer I was undergoing treatment, we celebrated any victories, large or small, and took in the good and bad days with gratitude. After this experience, though, my childhood was always slightly tainted, making looking back on it something that comes with a twinge of pain for what was lost. 

It goes without saying that the experience had both an emotional and financial effect on my family as well. Medical bills piled up, punctuated by a temporary loss of my family’s primary insurance coverage. To this day, my family is put on edge by any health news that is even mildly abnormal and overly cautious about unusual symptoms. 

Though I was not a THON child, I was aware of the organization as I grew up because I lived only an hour away from both Hershey and State College. A nearby high school held a mini-THON that I attended in middle school, and I loosely followed along with coverage of THON Weekend when I was in high school. 

It certainly was not a deciding factor in my choice to attend Penn State, but the thought of getting involved with THON did make the decision a bit easier. Of course, my first year at Penn State landed smack in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I chose to get involved anyway and was lucky enough to end up on a Dancer Relations committee. 

As a result of the pandemic, all official THON activities were held remotely, including weekly meetings. Despite this, it was easy to bond with my fellow committee members, and I felt a special connection to my captain, who was also a childhood cancer survivor and aspiring nurse. 

It was everything I had expected and more — a bunch of college students, usually unruly and careless, coming together for a legitimate cause that affected real people and being deeply dedicated to it. I was astounded. 

The following year, I returned to the organization, expecting a similar experience, and was even more excited to dive headfirst into in-person activities. Instead, I was met with disappointment. 

I joined another committee, but the passion of both my fellow committee members and captains lacked compared to what I had previously encountered. 

Additionally, the committee frequently wanted to be social outside of THON events. This was fine with me, but I quickly learned that this often involved late-night gatherings punctuated by drinking games and drug usage.

As the year progressed, I became more disillusioned with THON as a whole and started getting very anxious for THON Weekend. When my committee received our schedule for the weekend, we went over it shift by shift, discussing what each block would entail. 

Like every other group, we had one shift scheduled on the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center, where most of the magic happens. My captain made special note of our floor shift, saying, “This is when you want to make sure your hair and makeup look good so you can take pictures!”

This sparked a conversation between the group about how they would plan things to make sure they could get home between shifts, get some decent sleep, and also make sure they looked their best to take pictures on the floor with each other, THON dancers, and Four Diamonds families and children. 

I was astounded again but this time in the worst way. I had known and realized that being on the floor was a big deal, but I was under the impression this was because of the pure joy, innocence, and support that likely diffused through the area. I didn’t realize people wanted to be down there because it was a photo op.

After THON Weekend 2022, as I scrolled through social media, the puzzle pieces clicked. Participating in THON is nothing but a status symbol and a sneaky way to put philanthropy on your resume. 

As THON has approached this year, I’ve talked to some friends about what organizations they’re representing or if they know anyone who is dancing. Rather than being excited to support their friends or THON’s mission, they’ve complained about having floor passes for the middle of the night. 

Don’t get me wrong — the THON volunteers (and supporters) are crucial to putting on THON and its other smaller events every year. I give them a lot of credit for the work that is done and how much money is raised. As a childhood cancer survivor, I think the mission is incredible, and I hold a deep appreciation for their efforts. However, for a solid 90% of volunteers, their hearts are not in the right place, and it makes the entire organization toxic.

Throughout my time at Penn State, especially after stepping away from the organization, I have witnessed questionable behavior related to THON, making many of my peers and I uneasy about the integrity of THON as an organization.

For example, many Greek life members are forced to be present in the Bryce Jordan Center to support their fraternity or sorority’s dancers and are given a schedule of shifts to show up for. While this support is important for their dancers, many members are disrespectful to other THON volunteers. I’ve watched them become unruly and push past or yell at the freshmen in red Rules and Regulations shirts who are supposed to control the capacity of each portal. I’ve watched them crowd the entrance to a portal and bombard a committee member with questions they cannot answer because they are only there to enforce the rules.

On the other hand, if Greek life members choose not to show up at all for their assigned time slot, they’ll probably be forced to pay a fine. Paying a fine probably wouldn’t be a big deal to most members, as they’re no strangers to added costs associated with membership. 

The Penn State Panhellenic Council website gives an estimated range of $350 to $600 for semesterly dues. The same website states that it is “strongly recommended” for new members to live in the chapter floors of renovated South Halls for at least two semesters. Due to their location and renovations, these residence halls will run students $4,503 a semester for a double room. A traditional residence hall double room costs $3,921 per semester, a difference of around $600 per semester or $1,200 for the year. Numbers for fraternities are not as easily available but would likely be similar. 

Looking at the annual numbers, it’s also no secret that Greek life raises the most money for THON. Diving deeper into individual DonorDrive pages, it’s pretty common to see people with donations of $10,000+ from large companies and foundations — sometimes belonging to their own parents. 

If anyone discusses the ill-mannered behavior, though, there’s never accountability. The consistent response given is, “We’re the reason that THON exists and makes so much money in the first place!” This is certainly true, and once again, myself and the Four Diamonds families are eternally grateful. But if you want everyone else to recognize that you have such a crucial part in THON, at least try to make us believe you’re worthy of that importance. Make your fraternity and sorority alumni proud.

Within the organization itself, at least several members of the Executive Committee are part of one of three secret societies on campus. In a previous Onward State investigation, we discovered that secret societies (and student government, student dollars, and campus as a whole) were heavily influenced by powerful alumni, who tunneled money through the very small group of members, who are exclusively prevalent student leaders. 

Knowing this, I feel that it’s impossible to trust the THON Executive Committee, which oversees everything regarding THON operations. Alumni are known to provide current secret society members with hefty “scholarships.” Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the most shocking news that those wealthy alumni have a hand in the leadership decisions of THON. 

Building on that, the public relations department is unnecessarily strict with its language. It feels that there are only about five phrases that anyone affiliated with THON is allowed to use, including “world’s largest student-run philanthropy” and “committed to enhancing the lives of children and families impacted by childhood cancer.“ Seriously, I hear these phrases in my nightmares as a student journalist who regularly covers THON news and events. 

Even in interviews with media, dancers are given a 15-slide presentation about key points to include in their answers, labeled as “THON Branding Basics.” The presentation also includes “power words” (i.e. hope, heroes, mission, fight, etc.) and “power phrases,” which include the two phrases I mentioned above. 

A Public Relations captain is also required to be at every interview conducted. In my four years at Onward State, this is the only organization where I have had this occur, and I’ve interviewed the mayor of State College, the Penn State student body president, and an employee of the Philadelphia Eagles. 

Unless there’s something to hide, what’s the reason for being so strict? What’s the reason for reciting THON’s mission like a manifesto at every meeting? I understand wanting to give Four Diamonds families the respect that they deserve in terms of the battles that they are fighting. In my experience, though, most families are absolutely thrilled to tell volunteers about their children. 

Reusing the same phrases over and over again and forcing volunteers to recite them at every meeting seems to take away the meaning of the words. Instead of allowing them to really sit with you and consider the impact of THON’s mission, volunteers are just focused on memorizing a paragraph.

Finally, it feels that THON makes choices with Penn State students in mind, not Four Diamonds families. In October 2021, THON made a cautious decision to return to the Bryce Jordan Center the following February. In the months leading up to THON 2022, the United States saw a sustained increase in both COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations.

THON enforced a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for dancers, committee members, press, performers, and anyone else who may be on the floor close to Four Diamonds families. Any spectators or organizations in the lower or upper levels did not need to be vaccinated to be allowed in the Bryce Jordan Center. 

Masking was also required but after the first hour, though this went out the window. Many spectators were wearing masks under their chins or not wearing them at all. Masking enforcement fell into the hands of the Rules and Regulations committee members who already struggle to enforce rules for a crowd of 15,000. 

Looking back, this decision to hold an in-person event feels incredibly selfish. While the vaccination efforts were a good start, vaccination does not prevent the spread of disease — it only decreases the severity of illness in a healthy person. Ultimately, vaccination protects the individual who got the shot and not anyone around them. Any children actively or recently in treatment for their cancer would have a compromised immune system, immediately making it unsafe for them to attend in person.

THON held a livestream for families to enjoy from the safety and comfort of their homes, which is the easy solution. But how do you explain the inner workings of the immune system to a child who can’t understand anything besides the fact that they are watching other children having fun while they are stuck at home?

I love THON’s mission. I do not love THON as an organization, and I do not love its volunteers. Children with cancer are not a photo opportunity or a way to farm likes on Instagram. THON shouldn’t be used as a social club or a resume booster more than it is used as a legitimate charity. 

At the end of the day, these children and families are real people, with real lives, and real stories. The financial support that is provided to them through Four Diamonds and THON is irreplaceable, and I don’t need to speak to a family to know that they’re deeply appreciative of it. 

However, to fulfill THON’s mission, volunteers owe it to these families to also provide empathy, compassion, and simple decorum, even when there may not be a Four Diamonds family right in front of them. 

It is THON’s responsibility to address these issues head-on instead of continuing to turn a blind eye. Though it may be difficult to face its shortcomings, it will only strengthen the organization and support the students who participate and lead in the coming years.

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee is a senior studying immunology and infectious disease. She is from Mifflintown, PA, a tiny town south of State College. She is fueled by dangerous amounts of caffeine and dreams of smashing the patriarchy. Any questions or discussion about Taylor Swift’s best songs can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter or emailed to [email protected]

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