Penn State's THON sets another record in cancer fight: $12.4 million

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- By 9 a.m. Sunday the doors were closed. The Bryce Jordan Center had reached its capacity. By 4 p.m. Sunday all 16,000 people (dancers, supporters and spectators) were still standing, waiting in anticipation to hear the number for which there seems to be no cap.

$12,374,034.46. THON, the annual IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, raised $12.3 million, nearly $2 million more than last year's record number.

It's like this every year. THON just seems to get bigger. Every year the Bryce Jordan Center fills up a little earlier. And every year the final announcement comes with a little more energy, excitement and anxiousness to see if last year's total has been surpassed and this year's goal reached.

How does it happen? How do Penn State University students raise an impressive total each year and then somehow raise more the next, to the point where they've now donated just more than $100 million to the Four Diamonds Fund for pediatric cancer since THON's inception in 1973?

Overall chair Will Martin pointed to new events like a worldwide line dance, as well as increased marketability from a THON documentary made this fall. He also pointed to the promise of change. As much as the structure for THON stays the same and the proceeds go to the same cause, every year brings about different people, with different ways of helping.

"We always say THON is living and breathing," Mr. Martin said. "We always need to find ways and adapt ways to spread awareness."

In that spirit of change and freshness, it's worth mentioning P.J. Tatano. He introduced one of those new ideas THON thrives on. He's a freshman petroleum engineer major who graduated from Chartiers-Houston High School.

Mr. Tatano quickly became involved with THON once he became a student here, joining the Rules and Regulations Committee, as well as the organization for his major in the school of earth and mineral resources. They watched a movie about pediatric cancer patients. On the screen, the suffering children complained about their loss of hair as part of treatment.

It stuck with Mr. Tatano, enough so that when he was home for winter break he saw an old bookmark for Paralympic skier Josh Sundquist, who lost his leg because of cancer. The bookmark featured several people, all with shaved heads, and the word "friendship" scrawled across.

Mr. Tatano knew at this point he wanted to shave his head for THON and there wasn't a fundraiser that had been created yet for doing so. So Mr. Tatano made plans. He would call his fundraiser "No Hair, Don't Care," and the idea to shave your head to raise money was good. Mr. Martin met with him and told him so. The challenge was timing. After getting everything set up to be a fundraiser for THON, he had 20 days before THON weekend.

To get the word out for a head-shaving event planned for last Monday at Evolve Salon, he emailed some of the biggest administrators and athletes on campus. Penn State basketball coach Patrick Chambers quickly replied. He was in.

By the time "No Hair, Don't Care" held its event last Monday, it had the backing of Mr. Chambers and men's volleyball coach Mark Pavlik. Twenty people were expected, but 90 showed up to join the cause.

Later this week, athletic director Dave Joyner and football coach Bill O'Brien also posed for pictures with the "No Hair, Don't Care" headband. Then, at Rapid Transit sports to buy new shoes for this weekend, Mr. Tatano told the store owner what he was doing for THON, and Mr. Tatano said the owner, Terry Losch, told him he would double whatever he had raised. The $550 earned from the haircuts and sales of the headbands had now turned into $1,100.

"All of those people who shaved their heads, that's the heart of it," Mr. Tatano said. "I don't care about the money it makes. I mean, I'm happy to do that, but I don't like it when people measure it by that. I'm really looking for the emotional aspect of that."

Mr. Tatano said he plans to continue the fundraiser in the coming years while he is a student. He would like for each organization to be able to partake and raise the funds through their organization.

His plan essentially is for "No Hair, Don't Care" to grow. It's a challenge that keeps THON going year after year.

"We kept saying there's probably a plateau out there where this level would reach," said Charles Millard, the co-founder of Four Diamonds. "But it's a new group. And there are more people out there. There are people getting sick, and there are more needs. There is no plateau."

education - state - health

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, Twitter @mdent05.


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