TV review: 'Story of THON' sheds favorable light on Penn State

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Penn State University's "THON" is all about the numbers: an event 46 hours long, 365 days in the making. More than $88 million has been raised to help children with cancer since its inception in 1977.

Yet it's also about the people: With 15,000 student volunteers, it is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world.

"We always say that a 'THON' is unexplainable. It's just one of those things you have to see for yourself," Kirsten Quisenberry said.

If "We are/Penn State," then "THON is/Penn State."

"Why We Dance: The Story of THON" is an hourlong documentary. The Penn State Public Broadcasting feature is by turns inspiring and heartbreaking, and one that could not come at a better time for Nittany Lion alumni and friends.

"THON is the reason I am so proud to be a Penn Stater. I would hope that people see that Penn State is more than a [scandalous] football program. We are academics, we're THON, we're special."

Ms. Quisenberry, who recently graduated from Penn State with a degree in graphic design, was the 2011-12 THON public relations captain. As such, she was part of a massive undertaking that began with a simple Panhellenic dance marathon in 1972.

Early THONS benefited a variety of causes, including Easter Seals and the American Heart Association. In 1977, the students teamed up with the Four Diamonds Fund, which supports pediatric cancer programs at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital, and THON took off, big-time.

The film opens with a spotlight on a handful of THON kids and their families. Some appear to be currently in treatment, others are in remission. All have been touched by THON.

Charles Milliard, who co-founded the Four Diamonds Fund after the death of son Christopher, 14, later says he appreciates the legacy of the event, but "it was not our intention to glorify or memorialize our son."

Instead, the Four Diamonds Fund was established to help those enduring the pain and uncertainty of pediatric cancer, and it's clear, especially later in the film, that that entails much more than just raising money.

Director/producer Cole Cullen and his crew at Penn State Public Broadcasting began filming in September 2010, and they follow a hardworking and earnest group of students through a year of planning, fundraising and execution.

Jeff Hughes of Penn State Public Broadcasting is executive producer of the documentary.

Interviewed is Kirsten Kelly, the 2011 overall chair, who explains that the vast volunteer structure of putting on THON involves 14 people on the overall committee in categories such as entertainment, logistics and finance, 320 captains within the categories, and 3,400 general committee members.

More than 370 fundraisers throughout the year -- including students with coffee cans asking motorists for spare change, and dance mini-marathons at high and middle schools -- all lead up to the big event in Bryce Jordan Center each February.

The culmination of THON is a 46-hour event in which 700 students must remain on their collective feet. They dance, they play games, they socialize, they sing, they pay tribute to the patients and their families. Near the end of the marathon, there is a "family hour," where one of the dads is shown giving a rousing speech that ends in the vast crowd chanting "We are! Penn State!"

Buzzing around the actual dance marathon, in what seems like almost every corner of the 16,000-seat complex, are other events. Students donate hair for wigs, they supply activities for patients and their families, there are grief counseling sessions.

Meanwhile, 135 miles away a group of 10 volunteers are at the medical center, entertaining the kids.

"Any time we do something with THON, it takes the cancer away for a while," says one dad.

"Why We Dance" doesn't have a clear narrative arc, but the spirit of the project comes through. In an age when the selfishness of teens often makes for hit reality television, it's a welcome change to see so many working so hard to not only brighten but also perhaps help save lives.

education - state - tvradio

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published September 29, 2012 4:00 AM


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