It’s THON season here in Happy Valley. Actually, as I write this, the THON total for 2015 has just been announced. $13,026,653.23. For anyone who lives around these parts and has been involved with or has known about THON I’m sure is overwhelmed right now and very happy. That’s a shit ton of money that families of kids with cancer don’t have to pay out of pocket for cancer treatments.
Recently I had a friend say to me that he was “suspicious” of THON. I get it. He’s not from State College. In fact, he’s not even a big fan of the town. But I bet part of his suspicion with THON has to do with his overall suspicion having to do with anything Penn State. For many people who aren’t from State College or who didn’t go to Penn State for college, it’s easy to look at this place and see ONE GLARING HUGE ASS BLUE AND WHITE MONSTROSITY: Football.
And yes, football is a big part of Penn State culture. But it’s not to the ONLY part of Penn State culture, and I think it’s time we stop using our disgust with football culture to hate on Penn State.
So what else does Penn State have besides football? Well, it has a lot of incredible academic programs, it’s an award-winning research institute, blah blah blah. But even if it didn’t have any of that, all you need to say is: THON.
Penn State has THON.
THON is the largest student-run philanthropic organization in the world. THE WORLD. In addition to having hundreds of physical dancers, there are tens of thousands of people involved with volunteering in and around the edges for THON weekend, not to mention just the people who donate money. I didn’t get involved with THON when I was an undergrad, but I wish I would have. I did some canning for my organization (S-PSEA) and we had sponsored a little girl whose cancer was in remission. There were people in my organization with much more knowledge about THON who were excited to be a part of it. I more or less just wanted to be of help while sitting on the sidelines. I dontated. I helped to build our homecoming float. I even got my introverted ass ON the float during the homecoming parade and rocked out on air guitar to Hot For Teacher.
But when it came time for THON weekend, I stood on the sidelines. But even on the sidelines, I was completely emotionally blown away but what I saw and what I felt. At that time, THON was in Rec Hall and it was pretty easy to enter and exit. All I really remember is the energy I felt wafting from the dance floor to the bleachers. And it hit me hard. I balled like a baby. I was so overwhelmed with inspiration for mankind. (This happens to be sometimes — I get emotional when I witness my fellow human beings experiencing pure joy and their true passions.)
But beyond that, I can’t really describe it. I couldn’t explain to my friend why THON was legit and he shouldn’t be suspicious of it. Then the other day a friend on Facebook posted an article written by Jillian Gordan on Onward State. She also was trying to capture why it was so difficult to explain THON to others. I like what she said, so I thought I’d share it for you here.
In addition to the article, I encourage you to watch Why We Dance: The Story of THON, produced by wpsu a few years ago to highlight exactly what is the title says: to explain why. It’s beautiful.
Why is THON so hard to explain? by Jillian Gordan
As a Penn State student, it is impossible to think of Penn State without thinking about THON. On the surface, talking to non-Penn Staters about THON is pretty simple. It’s a year-long effort to raise money and awareness for the fight against pediatric cancer.
The year culminates with a 46-hour dance marathon. Dancers don’t sleep or sit during THON weekend until the final reveal of how much money was raised that year. People can swallow that information pretty easily.
But trying to get people outside of Penn State to understand why it is so important to us is a whole different issue. Anybody that is involved with THON knows the frustrating feeling of trying to try help people understand why we THON. We can get asked some of the silliest questions, such as:
“So like… do they literally do the tango or something for 46 hours straight?”
“When do they get to sleep?”
“Since it’s called THON does that mean you have to run a marathon too?”
“Can anyone dance?”
And if that wasn’t enough of a pain, talking to friends who go to schools that have something similar to THON might be even worse. It is amazing and humbling to hear about the work that other schools put into causes that they are passionate about, but when someone tells you, “Oh, we have that too! It’s 24 hours and we raised over $1,000,000!”, it’s really hard to tell them what we do at THON and why so many of us are involved without sounding condescending.
Even as a Penn State freshman last year, I really didn’t understand what all of the fuss was about. So you stand for 46 hours…cool? I thought a lot of people were jumping on the bandwagon because it was the cool “Penn State” thing to do, not because they actually cared about the cause. I didn’t get why so many people thought it was a big deal. Then I went to THON last year, and all of that changed. No one can ever really understand the passion the weekend exudes without experiencing it yourself. I had intended to stay for an hour or so to see what the big deal was and support some friends of mine that were dancing. I didn’t leave until eight hours later.
On my walk home I thought to myself, “Why did it take me so long to understand why everyone cares so much about this?” I couldn’t really put a concrete answer to it. In a few short hours my entire perspective on the event did a 180, and I couldn’t understand how I could think the event was anything other than awesome.
So why is it so hard to help people understand what happens at THON? It’s because THON isn’t an event, it’s a feeling; one you can’t understand until you experience it yourself. It’s like the feeling of being in love. You can talk to someone about it, tell them how happy you are and that there is no other feeling like it. How being in love gives you nerves and butterflies and makes you wanna do cartwheels and be a complete weirdo for no apparent reason. But unless that person has been in love before, will they really understand?
THON weekend isn’t just an event, it’s a being in itself. It is fluid and breathtaking. It’s multidimensional. You can’t talk about the dancers without explaining what the moralers do. You can’t talk about THON Families without talking about all of the amazing work THON organizations do. You can’t talk about THON without talking about the feeling of being there.
If you are a Penn Stater and have yet to experience THON yourself, my greatest piece of advice is simply to go. THON is free to the public and you are welcome to go at anytime (unless full capacity is reached). Bring someone from another school to THON. Bring your parents. You can’t understand THON until you feel it for yourself.
It’s the feeling you get when you find out that two of your very best friends will be dancing FTK.
It’s the feeling you get when you see the smiling faces of THON kids when they’re up on stage, and see the tears in the eyes of their parents.
It’s the feeling you get when, after the millionth time, you finally learn the THON line dance.
It’s the feeling you get when a child who has been going through chemo for months is able to run about the dance floor like nothing was ever wrong.
It’s that chill in the bottom of your stomach when the dancers sit down at the stroke of hour 46.
It’s the feeling of those butterflies that last for days after the reveal of the total amount raised for the Four Diamonds Fund.
It’s the feeling when you see that look on a child’s face when they find out that they’re cancer free.
That’s how THON feels.