UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In her first year as executive director of EMS Benefiting THON, the student group in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences that helps raise funds for families grappling with pediatric cancer, Penn State student Kayla McCauley had a few things to be worried about.
She had a few years under her belt as family relations director for the college's student group that each year participates in the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, known as THON, which raises money for Four Diamonds. In that role, she had grown close with the college’s four THON families, but never saw the financial side of things. In addition, the global pandemic complicated traditional ways of fundraising for the group.
With that in mind, McCauley, a senior majoring in meteorology and atmospheric science, reluctantly set the group’s fundraising goal at $20,000, about half of last year’s goal. But just hours before the 46-hour dance marathon, held Feb. 19–21, was set to begin — thanks to the broad support of the college’s students, faculty, staff and alumni — McCauley watched as donations poured in and the group surpassed its goal. She upped the goal to $30,000, and fundraising passed that the next afternoon. By Sunday the group had raised $39,721, nearing its pre-COVID 2020 goal and adding to THON’s overall fundraising total of $10.6 million.
At one point she shared the news with three of her fellow dancers who joined her via Zoom and said, “We literally just doubled from Friday.”
The news, which helped the student group take eighth place among University organizations raising funds for THON, caught others by surprise. They were hopeful, yet had tempered their expectations.
“I think we were all shocked. I mean, we were shocked by the EMS total,” said Chris Long, THON fundraising volunteer and a senior double majoring in meteorology and atmospheric science and geography. “And then when there was a '10' at the beginning of the overall total, I just could not believe it. I just think that’s amazing.”
Finding support, virtually
As the four EMS dancers huddled up — McCauley, Long, Talia Potochny and Isabella Urbina — they wondered if they could keep their energy up throughout the weekend. Missing was the energy of the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center, surrounded by morale boosters and friends, fellow classmates and supporters cheering from the stands. In its place was a Zoom room, where dancers themselves were only digitally connected.
But for all that was lost, much was replaced by an outpouring of support. Support like two fifth-graders who were among EMS’ THON families.
“They wanted to spend the whole weekend with us,” McCauley said. “They were constantly popping in and out, asking us how we were doing and if we wanted to play games. And that was awesome. These were the kind of interactions we wouldn’t have gotten on the floor.”
McCauley also heard from alumni — including a former EMS Benefiting THON executive director — offering their support. Because the dancers were just a click away, faculty and staff also dropped in to lend support.
Long said his roommates were there to help. But he also had a group of students who masked up and joined him in the cold outside his apartment.
For Urbina, a senior majoring in materials science in engineering, she found energy from family members who visited from as far away as Mexico and friends who surprised her from across the United States.
“One thing I found really heartwarming was that I could see all my friends and family that wouldn’t typically be able to visit,” Urbina said. “I really appreciated the morale from them because there were just surprises that I didn’t expect. And they woke me back up and rejuvenated me.”
Raising funds, visiting families
Fundraising also required a new approach. The group transformed their traditional events to virtual with great success.
The date auction was still a go, although both the auction and the dates took place virtually. Hike for the Hollingers, named after one of their THON families, was extended to two weeks and participants sent in their distances.
Visiting families, something the group does throughout the year, was also made possible virtually. They thought of interactive ways to keep the Zoom calls interesting, such as a THON-themed “Kahoot,” an online quiz game.
They also brought their families together for a larger virtual gathering, something that's not traditionally done.
One family, the Brewers, strengthened that family connection with gift packages for each of the four dancers. Hats featuring the names of their four THON families were delivered just before THON weekend. The Brewers also sent buttons with pictures of their son Troy, who passed away due to cancer in 2005. Underneath the bill of the hats were his last words: “I’ll be fine. I’ll be OK.”
When it means more
The students said the challenges made their successes even more meaningful. And, after a trying year, a win was just what they needed.
“I’m just really honored to have represented EMS, especially in such a tough year,” said Potochny, a senior majoring in geography. “It just felt like such a beacon of hope and joy. And something that I think everyone was really looking for during this really hard time. It was great to be part of that, to be part of that hope and joy that we can spread to our families and the community, and Penn State and really the world, as the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. I think it was just something that everyone was really looking forward to. It gave them something to believe in.”