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Making a Difference: Hartigan's Involvement in THON Pays Off
7/10/2013 — Donating to the charity of your choosing in today’s world is easier than ever. With the click of a button, a person can transfer money to benefit a cause they support. But Penn State Altoona sophomore Katy Hartigan wanted to affect change by involving herself in something more personal, something of which she could take a certain amount of ownership.
Hartigan, a varsity women’s soccer player at Penn State Altoona, was attracted to Penn State University’s THON program. THON is a student-run organization that raises money to combat pediatric cancer. Every February, THON’s efforts culminate in a two-day dance marathon hosted at University Park. The money raised is donated to the Four Diamonds Fund, a charity that supports pediatric cancer research for patients at the Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital.
Throughout the year, students from each Penn State campus tirelessly raise money by hosting charity events, asking for private donations, and canning, an activity in which students go into communities across the region with cans to collect money from the public.
Hartigan was first exposed to THON when her older sister became involved as a Penn State student. The student groups that participate in THON get to meet and learn about specific pediatric cancer patients who they are directly benefitting. For Hartigan, this put a face to the cause and made her realize how much of a positive influence she could have.
“My sister’s organization had a six-year-old THON child named Lexi, and her dream was to meet Taylor Swift. A hashtag on Twitter was started, and she ended up being able to meet Taylor,” said Hartigan. “Two weeks later, she passed away before her preplanned birthday party. Kids shouldn’t have to miss out on things like their own birthday party.”
Hartigan set her mind to investing herself in THON. In her freshman year at Penn State Altoona, she volunteered regularly and found it easy to push herself to do more.
“Because it’s run by students, there’s great heart and passion. We’re all just young adults that want to make a difference and inspire other people,” Hartigan explained. “We all relate to the kids, and you want these children to experience the same things that you did. Sometimes you take the smallest things for granted.”
Hartigan learned about the pain felt by the THON children and their families. She heard heartbreaking stories of lives cut short due to cancer. She met children who might only be alive for a few more months. The many hours spent volunteering, she realized, were nothing compared to the hardships faced by the cancer patients.
“When you’re canning for money in the winter, you might not feel like standing outside for hours in the cold. But when you know that there are children who are struggling for their lives and can’t even make it to their own birthday parties, it’s nothing,” Hartigan said.
In her sophomore year, Hartigan upped her participation, volunteering and attending more activities and recruiting more students to help in THON’s efforts. It all paid off for her when she was picked to be a THON dancer. She was one of just six dancers who represented Penn State Altoona on the floor of University Park’s Bryce Jordan Center during the two-day dance marathon, a celebration of all the hard work by THON participants.
But being a THON dancer is not only a prestige – it is a physical test that challenges participants to dance for 46 hours straight without sitting or sleeping. Students from across the Penn State system, including those selected as dancers, pack into the BJC to enjoy the party-like environment.
“They play music to keep you dancing and keep you moving. Every hour, they have a line dance to a song that relates to Penn State and THON,” explained Hartigan. “People come to cheer you on, and the THON kids and their families are out there supporting you. It’s the best atmosphere.”
THON raised a record total of more than $12 million, and Penn State Altoona itself was responsible for over $100,000 of that, becoming the first commonwealth campus to ever raise that much money for the charity. Hartigan was proud of Penn State Altoona’s efforts and was glad to represent her campus in front of the entire Penn State community.
“We wanted to raise a lot and show everybody else how much hard work and dedication our campus put into THON this year,” she stated. “When the results came in, it was such a good feeling to know that we helped so many children with cancer after an entire year of work.”
In just two years at Penn State Altoona, Hartigan became a leader of the THON efforts on campus. She has experienced just about everything that the charity program has to offer, and she plans on continuing her involvement in it for years to come.
“I want to be devoted to it,” Hartigan said. “I expect to keep doing it, even after I graduate.”
Photo (submitted): Katy Hartigan (center) on stage at Penn State University's Bryce Jordan Center during THON in February.