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Penn State THON: Meet the York County student at the center of this huge fundraising event

Written by Gordon Rago/The York Daily Record | Feb 16, 2018 1:11 PM
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Students pack the Bryce Jordan Center at Penn State in 2017 for the first night of THON, a major fundraiser that supports children who have been diagnosed with cancer. This year's event starts Friday, Feb. 16. (Photo: Phoebe Sheehan, Centre Daily Times)

(Undated) -- When she was 12, Haley Staub's aunt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It wasn't too long after that the girl began volunteering.

In the seventh grade, that meant dancing for Spring Grove's mini-THON, a fundraiser for pediatric cancer. By the eighth grade, she was handling the event's finances, in a year that she and her school helped raise $35,533.22. 

Today, her aunt is a survivor. She's in remission. But Staub hasn't stopped -- her aunt's diagnosis put her on a path to help others.

In fact, today, Staub finds herself at the center of Penn State's own THON event, an annual fundraiser that has raised more than $146 million for Four Diamonds at Penn State Children's Hospital.

THON's major event, where dancers spend 46 hours constantly on the move, kicks off Friday and continues through Sunday, a weekend when they announce the annual fundraising total. Last year, they raised $10 million.

So while Staub's had to take exams, go to classes, hang out with friends, and ponder life after college, the Penn State senior has also regularly been a key behind-the-scenes person across many of the THON fundraisers throughout the year.

As the director of public relations, Staub sits on the event's executive committee of students. 

"This experience with THON has defined my Penn State experience," Staub said. "I couldn't imagine not giving back."

It's not clear just exactly how THON stacks up against other fundraisers. Penn State calls the event the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, and one website, Non Profit PRO, ranked THON in 2014 in the top 5 largest peer-to-peer fundraisers in the United States.

The event has been around since the 1970s, so there is a process in place that makes organization a bit less chaotic, said Lily Beatty, 23, a 2016 Penn State graduate who now lives on the West Coast for her Oakland job at Nestle. Beatty, an Illinois native, held Staub's position in 2016. 

But that also means there are pressures to grow and challenge what's been done in the past, Staub and Beatty agree. 

"We are working all year, pushing," she said, echoing Beatty's thoughts that the most stressful parts of working for THON are how to improve it and make it more efficient.

"When that event begins and people step into THON, I would like them to understand the amount of manhours all the volunteers and executive committee members put in," Beatty said.

Working for THON also provides experiences students say taught them about hard work and prepared them for life after college. 

"The students I had the pleasure of working with the entire year were some of the hardest working people I know," said Sam Sherlock, 23, a graduate from West Chester who was THON's public relations director last year. "That's something you don't find as much. If there was a difficult task, there was always somebody to help, always somebody to challenge the status quo and try something new."

When Staub describes the lead-up to the dance weekend, it sounds like a well-oiled machine. There's an operations committee that makes sure everything at the Bryce Jordan Center is good to go.

There's a dancer relations committee and a hospitality committee who help take care of the hundreds of dancers, ensuring that they get enough food and water. An entertainment group helps set up the stage and timeline of performers.

The students now turn more and more to social media to promote the events and bring in donations. 

One new approach has been a donor drive website, and people can create their own fundraising page, share photos and tell their own personal story to help facilitate donations.

Data has shown, Staub says, that people are more likely to give when they can learn about someone's own personal story, or connection to how cancer has affected them. Today, they use more photos and videos.

"THON has taken a larger part of my time and energy every year," she said.

That work is powerful, and something Staub might pursue in her post-grad career.

She plans to continue an internship she had last year with Penn State in the division of development and alumni relations. 

When she's job searching, she says she will keep an eye on a business that is more cause-based.

After all, it was her aunt who taught her a lesson about having a positive attitude. After her aunt was diagnosed, her treatment led her to lose her hair. Staub remembers going to her home and seeing wigs in her bedroom. She asked her aunt why she never wore them.

"She said, I don't have to pretend to be anyone I'm not,'" Staub said.

That taught her: It's really your attitude in the midst of something as scary as a cancer diagnosis that will define your journey.

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record.

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