All in a Day’s Work for THON

For many of the volunteers, working for THON is a year-round commitment. Holly Maitland-McKenna (pictured above) gave Penn State’s annual dance marathon fundraiser one day.

It was a full day. Twenty-four hours worth, from 8 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 26th straight through to 8 p.m. on Friday the 27th. Virtually every second of it spent in the six-lane pool in the Aquatic Center on Penn State’s Harrisburg campus, swimming to raise money for THON 2017.

“All the kids on our campus are so involved. I was wondering how I could give back,” said Holly, who graduated from Penn State in 1987.

Holly has no recollection of anything THON-related from her days as a student on the main campus in State College. THON was in its second decade by then, and it was already a big deal in the world of college dance marathons. But the bulk of the participation in those days came from fraternities and sororities, as Holly remembers, and somehow it never quite registered on her radar.

It wasn’t until years later, when she started teaching swimming lessons at PSU-Harrisburg, that she first heard of THON – which has raised more than $136 million to benefit Four Diamonds at Penn State Children’s Hospital, which support pediatric cancer patients and their families. Once she became aware of it and witnessed the energy the students on the satellite campus put into raising funds and awareness for THON, Holly had to do something.

So, she did what she knows best. She hopped in the pool.

In 2013, she swam 15 straight hours – from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., when the Aquatic Center closed  — a people donated money to THON to support her. Holly registered as an official third-party fundraiser and over her first four years, she raised $9,375.58. Her money goes toward a campus-wide fundraising drive; most of the 24 schools in the Penn State University system compete against each other to see how much money they can raise.

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Photo by Nate Stiver

This year, Holly stepped it up. She extended her swim to a full 24 hours. She fired up her waterproof iPod Shuffle — loaded with everything from Dolly Parton to Marilyn Manson, European music to reggae – watched the clock on the wall tick to the top of the 8 o’clock hour, pushed off the wall and her personal full-day freestyle marathon was underway.

“It’s very social,” said Holly, who stopped to greet people when they came into the Aquatic Center to cheer her on. “We have a cowbell there, and every time someone donates money, they ring the bell.”

Besides the breaks to say hello, Holly left the pool intermittently – to use the bathroom or to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then, she jumped back into the pool, with her sandwich (which she forced herself to eat over the next couple of laps), and continued her swim.

When her shoulders started to ache, she would grab a kickboard and a pair of fins and kick for a half-mile or so. Then, once she felt better, she’d be back to the freestyle.

“I drank every 15 minutes to stay hydrated,” said Holly, who didn’t really train for her 24-hour swim; the furthest she’d gone in preparation was a three-mile swim back in December. “Because my stomach was full of fluids, I wasn’t really hungry, but I knew I had to eat to stay warm.”

The four-hour stretch from 3 a.m. until the pool officially opened at 7 a.m. was the toughest time for Holly. She was never alone – there was always a battery of volunteer lifeguards on hand, even when the students went home for a quick nap. But once morning came and she was surrounded again by plenty of people, Holly found the energy to muscle through the final 13 hours to her finish line.

At the end, there were 80 people – family, friends and students – on the pool deck cheering her on. And there was a THON family – parents and their two sons, one of whom had recently battled through cancer treatments – in the water with her.

And in the end, she’d done 1,512 laps of the 25-yard pool, which comes out to about 21 miles  (“My goal was 24 miles,” said Holly). Figuring breaks and time spent socializing, she estimates she swam about 22.5 of those 24 hours.

And her 5th-annual Swim For A Cure raised $3,287.17. For The Kids, as they say across THON.

All in a day’s work.

As we count down the to THON Weekend (Feb. 17-19), we will continue to share the story of the THON experience from a variety of participant perspectives. You can follow these stories on the Campus Causes blog and find out more about THON on its website. As well, you can support THON by visiting a dedicated Campus Causes site created for them, selecting any one of the 80 student campaigns and then shopping popular brands who give a portion of each purchase back to THON.

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