MONT ALTO, Pa. — Though they could not be physically together, Penn State dancers in the inaugural virtual THON were unified in their efforts to raise more than $10 million in the fight against childhood cancer.
Among the participants were three students from Penn State Mont Alto, who helped generate more than $22,000 for the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Since 1977, the massive, yearlong effort has supported 4,000 families and raised $180 million for Four Diamonds, which offsets the cost of treatment that insurance does not cover, as well as expenses that might affect the welfare of a child with cancer.
Instead of about 15,000 people gathering at the Bryce Jordan Center at the University Park campus to dance, the participants were in separate spaces all over the state for 46 hours from Feb. 19 to 21, sharing the experience via Zoom. Representing the Mont Alto campus were Audrey Glassmyer, Sarah McElwain and Tyler Shannon.
Because the event was held virtually for the first time in its more than 40-year history, Jacie Buller, a Mont Alto senior and co-chair of Mont Alto Benefiting THON with McElwain, admitted to being a bit nervous about how successful it would be.
“With any event, you’re always worried nobody will show up,” Buller said, adding that she knew her fellow members of Mont Alto Benefiting THON wouldn’t disappoint. The Zoom room was busy throughout the dance weekend, she said, and the livestreaming was well-received. The Mont Alto group connected through Zoom that weekend with the two families to whom it is connected as their children battle cancer.
“It was awesome, in our opinion,” Buller said. “It definitely was an interesting way to go out,” she said of her senior year, though she plans to be part of THON after graduation.
She also ended her undergraduate THON leadership on a high note by receiving a senior recognition award for outstanding fundraising, an accolade for which she didn’t take full credit.
“It’s not really me,” Buller said. “I’m just the face behind all this,” praising her executive board as “amazing people who shine a light” on the power of a small campus with a big heart.
Buller deemed the virtual experience a success.
“It was an awesome opportunity to connect at another level with our organization,” she said, adding that she was particularly moved by these words spoken during the event: “THON is not a place, it’s a feeling.”
Throughout the state, another shared virtual undertaking at the end of last year had people feeling chills while their hearts were warmed by the effort to support families whose children are battling cancer. From Dec. 4 to 6, 2020, buckets full of frigid water poured nearly $9,000 into Penn State Mont Alto’s fundraising endeavors to support THON.
For the third consecutive year, the Franklin County Chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association and the Mont Alto Alumni Society teamed up to sponsor the Mont Alto Polar Plunge to support the local campus’ participation in THON,
The first two years, plunge participants waded, ran or dove into the lake at Cowans Gap State Park in Fort Loudon, Pennsylvania. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the 2020 event moved to a virtual platform. A total of 56 people posted videos of ice water being poured over their heads by themselves, family, friends or co-workers. They paid $10 for the privilege of freezing for the sake of sick children and also encouraged donations from others. The combined efforts brought in $8,800 for Penn State Mont Alto Benefiting THON.
“I was very pleased with that,” said alumnus Steve Hawbaker, president of the Franklin County alumni chapter.
“We still raised a good bit of funds, despite people having uncertainty with their jobs in the pandemic,” said Jake Schrom, president of the Mont Alto Alumni Society’s board of directors.
The money raised was part of the $22,536.76 collected by the Mont Alto campus for THON.
Plunge chairman and alumnus AJ Stambaugh, a member of the Mont Alto Alumni Society, said for the first two years, companies sponsored the event. He said Capital BlueCross provided a $500 grant prior to the pandemic in March 2020, which helped get the event planning started in the spring.
For the third annual, companies were encouraged to participate by shooting videos of employees and managers getting soaked, an approach that will be taken in the future.
“We had a very good response from businesses who had an ice bucket dunk,” Hawbaker said, referring to Keller Williams of Central PA and Cumberland Valley Tree Service.
Cumberland Valley Tree Service got creative, drenching managers with icy water poured from trees and tree-trimming equipment perched overhead. Schrom captured it all on video.
Members of the sponsoring groups were part of the mix, too.
Emily Hawbaker, a Penn State alumna and daughter of Steve Hawbaker, poured a bucket full of water and ice over her father’s head as they both touted their allegiance to Penn State and their support of THON. The feat was filmed the day before Thanksgiving in Philadelphia.
The organizers weren’t going to let the coronavirus halt the momentum of the plunge or prevent them from raising funds for a cause that is dear to their hearts.
“Everybody was in agreement that we wanted to find some way to do it,” Schrom said.
The virtual approach was so successful that there are plans to offer it again next year, in addition to the in-person option.
“I think they will be very compatible,” Hawbaker said of the joint events.
For more information about THON, go to thon.org.
For more information about the Mont Alto Polar Plunge, go to montaltoplunge.org.