UNIVERSITY PARK — Last weekend, after months of scandal and media scrutiny surrounding their school, Penn State students took to the floor at the Bryce Jordan Center for the annual IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon — better known as THON — and showed just what the phrase “We are Penn State” means.
And two PAHS graduates — Brittany Baker and Keri Dinsmore — helped Penn State shatter last year’s record, raising $10.7 million for pediatric cancer research and to help emotionally and financially support families affected by pediatric cancer.
Baker, a 2009 PAHS grad majoring in biobehavior, said Penn State students were caught in the middle of the scandal that saw former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky facing numerous child sex charges and the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno, who then died in January.
But instead of running for the hills, students stood up — for their alma mater and themselves — through the record-breaking 2012 THON.
“And I think that happened way before Joe Paterno passed away,” Baker said. “‘We are Penn State:’ We needed to define what we mean by saying that, and that’s just one of many examples of how strong the (PSU) family unit is.”
“This year was such a hard year, and seeing that Penn State can still pull together to rise above and beyond anyone’s expectations is the best part of THON in my mind,” said Dinsmore, a PSU freshman and 2011 PAHS graduate. “I’m even more proud to call myself a Penn Stater now, and anyone who doesn’t agree should be ashamed of themselves.”
Both Baker and Dinsmore were among the thousands of PSU students taking part in the THON fund-raiser known as canning, in which they carry cans and seek donations from individuals and businesses in public.
Dinsmore said canning is a year-round process that takes time and planning between THON and student volunteers/organizations.
Canning groups are permitted to can only four weekends in a year, and this year, one weekend was interrupted by particularly nasty weather, suddenly setting back the 2012 fund-raising.
“We don’t generally bring a lot on a canning trip, but we definitely bring plenty of clothes suited for the weather,” Dinsmore, an animal science major and the daughter of Ray and Carol Dinsmore, said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s bitterly cold, windy or that weird freezing rain mix. We will can as long as possible.”
Preparing for a canning weekend begins with finding a volunteer host, and the weekend occurs at or near the host’s hometown. In Dinsmore’s case, her canning group, the Collegiate Horsemen’s Association at Penn State (CHAPS), canned in Punxsy the weekend following Groundhog Day.
“Then we get a list of people who want to go and decide on who is driving and when we’re leaving State College,” she said.
“I decided to host in Punxsy because I feel our town has somewhat of a strong connection to Penn State,” Dinsmore added. “A lot of people in our town have either gone to Penn State themselves or have children who have gone to Penn State. There’s a strong sense of community within Punxsy that I believe carries over into supporting the young adults from Punxsy, whether it’s a senior project or high school graduate coming back to make a difference in college. I can’t deny that a small part of it is also related to our dear groundhog, Phil.”
Eddie Smith, who has taken part in THON via Penn State’s DuBois campus for three years, saw the first night of the event, but couldn’t take part further since he’s ready to graduate as an IST and business administration double-major. But as someone who had lived with cancer throughout his life, he knows how the No. 1 benefactors of THON — the children — feel.
“I knew as a child how it felt, and the hospitals with what transpired over the years,” he said. “To have cancer at such a young age ... everyone tries to be perfect as a teen, but it seems like cancer takes a little bit out of you. You want to be an average teen, but you’re different.”
He sees the experiences of the PSU-DuBois THON committee’s child, Joey Setlock, who was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma in April 2005,
“Joey, our THON child, didn’t really want to go swimming because of the marks he had from treatments,” Smith said. “As for me, that was practically the same thing: The slice below my belly button from where they extracted my kidneys.”
At three months old, doctors removed Smith’s left kidney and half of his right at nine months, as he had been diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor, a rare kidney cancer affecting mainly children. In early January 2010, he received a kidney transplant at UPMC-Montefiore.
THON is divided among several student groups that take care of behind-the-scenes issues. Not every student dances, and those who do are selected through a lottery system.
A student who raises $2,600 receives one chance to dance, while another $500 equals another chance. Baker and her dance partner, Raya Pinsky — dubbed Team Shake & Bake — raised $11,000 and earned spots on the dance floor.
Baker and Pinsky not only canned, but they sent more than 300 donation envelopes and visited businesses in Punxsy and State College.
“You just go door to door and do anything you can think of,” Baker said. “Every little bit helps.”
As a freshman, Baker served as a member of the rules and regulation committee, and as a security leader as a sophomore. But this year, she wanted to dance.
“I knew after the first time, that I had to try dancing at least before I graduate from Penn State,” she said.
Baker said the 46-hour dance marathon — which concludes THON efforts on the university calendar — did not knock her to the sidelines.
“Honestly, I felt awesome the whole time,” she said, adding that she was inspired by the encouraging text messages from home — from some people she knew, and from some people she didn’t know.
Her family — parents Sam and Mary Ann and brother Dane, who plans to attend PSU-Altoona — were also at the Bryce Jordan Center lending moral support.
“They had shirts; it was cute,” Baker said.
Dinsmore said THON attracted her to Penn State as a PAHS student.
“One of the organizations I volunteered for during my junior and senior year was Relay for Life, because members of my family have been affected by cancer, and I wanted to continue volunteering for a similar cause in college,” she said. “That manifested as THON at Penn State.”
Paterno himself made an appearance at THON in 2009, but this year, it was his son and former quarterbacks coach, Jay, who addressed the students at the Bryce Jordan.
“When the storm clouds gathered around this campus in November, a lot of people ran for the hills,” the younger Paterno said last Saturday. “Not the students, who are the leaders of THON. You guys stood your ground, you kept up the fight. Your leadership … is going to tell the world what Penn State is all about once again.”
“Jay took what every single Penn State student felt and thought and said it to the community in a way that we were not able to,” Baker said. “He was one of the few able to put what we were feeling into the appropriate words.”
She also said that her favorite quote pertaining to this year’s THON is, “‘Adversity causes some to break and others to break records.’ That is the perfect explanation at Penn State. We easily could have given up under the media pressure.”
Instead, Penn State students did something that Joe Paterno asked his son Jay to do: Make an impact.
Dinsmore recalled seeing a photo, taken at Bryce Jordan, on Facebook called “Penn State Memes,” of students holding up signs with THON’s 2012 total.
“The caption reads, ‘They only care about football, they said. They don’t care about the kids, they said,’” she said. “It pretty much sums things up: No matter how much the media tries to bring us down over one thing or another, we are still Penn State, and we will never stop fighting to do something good in this world.”
As Smith prepares for graduation, he hopes to bring the spirit and purpose of THON to wherever his career takes him.
“No matter where I work, I hope to bring something like this with me to spread to other people; maybe start up something regional, whether it’s for kids with cancer or something else,” he said. “Something for the greater good.”
And how to explain THON to someone who has never experienced it?
“It’s so hard to explain,” Baker said. “Unless you’ve been to THON, you’ll never be able to explain it in words.”
“I cannot explain it,” Smith said. “It’s truly something indescribable. You can see the pics, video, and do everything that you want, and it will not be anything you’ve ever dreamed of. Once you’re inside the Bryce Jordan Center, it’s a totally different feeling, especially if you’re a dancer on the floor.”
Founded in 1973, funds raised through THON benefit the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital. The Four Diamonds Fund was established by Charles and Irma Millard after their son, Christopher, died from cancer at 14.
The actual fund helps to cover the cost of treatment not covered by the family’s insurance and expenses that may disrupt the welfare of the child, Dinsmore said. It also goes to support the medical team and pediatric cancer research through the Four Diamonds Pediatric Cancer Research Institute.
Since 1977, THON — the world’s largest student-run philanthropy — has raised more than $88 million for the Four Diamonds Fund.
Both Baker and Dinsmore thank the Punxsy community for their support of their THON efforts.
“They were awesome,” Baker said.