UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — More than 700 student dancers and thousands of supporters will culminate a year of fundraising this weekend at the 42nd annual 46-hour Penn State Dance Marathon, the impact of the relationships formed runs deep. For Rachel Gluck, a junior majoring in public relations, becoming part of the Whitehead family has “completed” her time at Penn State.
Along with dozens in the Penn State chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America, Gluck has danced, laughed, played, shed tears with and supported 8-year-old Emily and her parents, Tom and Kari Whitehead, of Philipsburg, Pa.
The PRSSA members are the Whiteheads’ “Penn State family” — made possible through the THON Adopt-A-Family program and The Four Diamonds Fund, an organization dedicated to providing financial and emotional support to families with children being treated for pediatric cancer, as well as research funding for the medical research teams who treat those children.
“They’re my second family. Some people don’t always understand that, but having this experience has truly changed my relationships with people. I’ve created better relationships with friends, and it’s pushed my organization and myself to do more."
Emily was diagnosed in May 2010 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, the most common form of pediatric cancer. When she went to the Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital for treatment, the family was approached by The Four Diamonds Fund, which introduced them to THON and matched them with Gluck’s student organization.
“Having this experience with THON and the Whiteheads has almost completed my college experience in terms of everything I was looking for,” said Gluck, the PRSSA director of philanthropy. “Coming to Penn State, I didn’t really know where being involved in THON was going to take me. When I think about it now, from my perspective of what THON was then and what it is now is completely different. Having that emotional connection with someone and seeing what you do affects everything.”
Gluck’s is one of many similar stories to come out of the program.
“Everyone has a different reason for why they start with THON,” said Dylan Miller, the 2014 THON family relations director.
“It really just varies so much, and that’s the beauty of THON. Everyone has a different reason why they first got involved and after they first got involved, their relationships, their involvement, their passion for it just grows from there. When they first meet a child, it’s eye-opening.”
Miller is one of 14 executive committee directors who each oversee a different aspect of the organization and a total of more than 15,000 Penn State student volunteers. His main focus is the more than 3,000 Four Diamonds Families who THON has helped.
Beyond fundraising, THON provides a huge network of support to the families of children who are fighting or have fought cancer.
Like the Whiteheads, families can choose to be paired with one of 300-plus Penn State student organizations participating in the Adopt-A-Family program, one of the most popular THON programs. They can also get a student pen pal and volunteer to help other families.
“Everyone has a different reason why they first got involved and after they first got involved, their relationships, their involvement, their passion for it just grows from there. When they first meet a child, it’s eye-opening.”
— Dylan Miller, the 2014 THON family relations director
More than 300 families are planning to attend THON this weekend, Miller said.
“It’s so great that they have those options,” Miller said. “Through THON, we’ll give each family exactly what they need as far as emotional support through their treatment and after their treatments, and then it’s up to them. If they want to stay involved, we have organizations that will stay involved with them. Or if they don’t need that support as much, if they want to fade away from THON, that’s completely fine. We always say that it’s completely healthy for a family not to be involved with THON when they don’t need that emotional aspect and want to move on with their lives.”
Events focused on Four Diamonds Families — including the Harvest Festival in September, the THON 5K in October and the Family Carnival in December — are also planned throughout the year. Athletics programs, such as THON Hoops and THON Soccer, bring Four Diamonds families to watch a free athletics game.
This year, the organization launched THON hockey games, and Four Diamonds Families got to skate with the women’s team members after their match.
That’s where Tom Whitehead and Emily met up recently with their Penn State friends.
Neither of them knew how to skate, and they were about to throw in the towel when one of the team members gave Emily a hand.
After a half hour, she was hooked. “And now Emily wants to be an ice skater,” he said.
Whitehead said it’s experiences like these and the unwavering support of PRSSA that makes him so thankful.
PRSSA members make funny faces with Emily Whitehead and her dad, Tom, after meeting the Four Diamonds Family for brunch this fall. “They have just made my experience at Penn State amazing. They’re my second family,” said Rachel Gluck, bottom left, PRSSA philanthropy director.
Image: Rachel Gluck
The organization supported Emily and her parents through her first treatment, a relapse and an experimental treatment that saved her life.
“We truly think of them as our family members,” Whitehead said. “Everything that we find out from the doctors at any point in her treatment, they know, we don’t hold any of it back.”
Emily is now approaching her two-year anniversary being cancer-free, and Thursday nights when her THON friends make the half-hour drive to the Whiteheads’ home to visit are “the highlight of Emily’s week,” he said.
“We’re very lucky that the Whiteheads live so close to us,” Gluck said. “Not many organizations have the opportunity to see their families all the time, but even if you don’t, I think one of the biggest things is that there is always something you can do — contact them, send emails, make phone calls, Skype, and there’s always a package you can send — to create that relationship with the family.”
In addition to their weekly meet-ups that range from disco dance parties in Emily’s basement to helping her review vocabulary words, the group members plan outings, such as dinner or Halloween trick-or-treating.
“They have just made my experience at Penn State amazing. They’re my second family,” Gluck said. “Some people don’t always understand that, but having this experience has truly changed my relationships with people. I’ve created better relationships with friends, and it’s pushed my organization and myself to do more.