MEDIA, Pa. — Most Penn Staters are familiar with THON, a completely student-run philanthropy committed to enhancing the lives of children and families impacted by childhood cancer. Since its inception, THON has raised more than $136 million to combat childhood cancer.
The organization’s efforts culminate each year with a 46-hour dance marathon in the Bryce Jordan Center at University Park, to which each participating Penn State campus sends dancers as representatives.
Penn State Brandywine’s three dancers for 2017 are Coleman Hart, Stephanie Harvey and Andrew Leake Jr.
Coleman Hart, a junior studying business at Penn State Brandywine, was recruited for THON by his friend and former THON dancer Michael Mensah.
“I asked Mike, ‘Why are you wiling to put so much time and effort into this?’” said Hart. “He actually jumped over the partition wall to get into the THON office — he couldn’t find the key — took a photo out of the office, and came back. It was a photo of our THON family. He pointed to Trevor, the son, and said, ‘This is why. For him.’”
Hart became a THON member and slowly got involved in the organization. After attending THON Weekend in 2015, he knew that he wanted to play a larger role in the future.
“When you actually go to the arena and meet a family going through something that no family should ever have to go through, it changes you,” he said.
Hart currently serves in donor and alumni relations, keeping contact with personal donors and recruiting business sponsorships for the organization. He also networks with Brandywine’s THON alumni, encouraging them to remain committed to making life better for families going through pediatric cancer.
“THON Weekend is basically every holiday for those kids rolled into one,” he said. “It’s their Christmas, New Year's and Easter — a break from all the bad.”
For any THON member, being selected to dance is an honor. Hart hopes that this experience will be an extension of his commitment to the families served by Brandywine and THON organizations statewide.
For Stephanie Harvey, a sophomore studying communication sciences and disorders, THON has always been part of her family legacy.
“My cousin, a Penn State alumnus, was super involved when I was in middle school,” she said. “So was his now-fiancée. Another one of my cousins is a senior at University Park and involved. I’ve known since middle school that I wanted to participate.”
When Harvey joined THON as a Brandywine freshman, though, she had no idea how cancer would personally impact her life.
“I met a girl named Kayla through my cousin. She was a Penn State student and very involved in THON,” said Harvey. “During her senior year, she was diagnosed with cancer herself. She passed away last year.”
Harvey’s mom also battled cancer and passed away in summer 2016. Her death inspired Harvey to take on the role as family relations captain.
“I know firsthand what it’s like to have somebody you love go through cancer,” she said. “That was something I thought I could contribute to our THON family.”
Harvey eventually switched to fundraising captain, however, so she could run for a position as a dancer.
“I realized that I wanted to dance for the 46 hours and represent Brandywine, my mom, and everyone else who’s going through this sickness,” she said.
From past years attending THON Weekend, Harvey is excited to once again be part of the action at the Bryce Jordan Center — this time on the arena floor. Even from the stands, though, she states that the sense of hope and community in the building is palpable.
“The Bryce Jordan Center is filled to capacity with college students, arms wrapped around each other,” she said. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling.”
For Harvey, THON has become not only a family legacy, but a source of healing in her own life.
“Not knowing if your mom will answer the phone when you call home is tough,” she said. “Being involved with THON truly helped. My actions in THON directly impacted the battle that my mom was going through.”
Andrew Leake Jr., a sophomore studying education, first heard about THON through a TV program when he was young.
“I asked my grandma, ‘Why does dancing 46 hours help kids with cancer?’” he said. “Now, of course, I get it.”
Leake signed up for THON at a club involvement fair and never looked back. Today, he serves as a fundraising captain along with co-dancer Stephanie Harvey. Like Hart, Leake cites THON Weekend at the Bryce Jordan Center as the event that sealed his desire to get more involved in the organization.
“There’s this moment during the weekend called Family Hour when all the families that THON helps parade onto the floor,” he said. “Then they have a slideshow with pictures of all the kids who have survived and where they are now. After that, four families get to explain their stories to the stadium.”
The family testimonies are followed by a memoriam slideshow honoring the families whose children have lost their battles with cancer.
“Someone so innocent and pure shouldn’t have to go through something as horrible as cancer,” Leake said. “What we do is make sure these kids can have a childhood and experience some good in their lives.”
For Leake, dancing is more than just a testament to the impact THON is making on hundreds of families. It’s also evidence of how much he has grown since coming to Brandywine.
“For as long as I can remember, I was the person who said ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,’” he said. “THON introduced me to kids who don’t have a choice — they are just thrown into this unimaginably hard battle — and they tell themselves, ‘I can.’ Now I say, ‘I can do this. I must do this. There’s no way I’m backing out.’”