Frank Pope volunteers 'For the Kids' in THON parking lots

For Frank Pope, events parking coordinator with Penn State’s Transportation Services, it’s all about the kids -- during THON weekend and throughout the year. Penn State recently put another successful IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon in the books, with dancers raising $13.3 million for pediatric cancer research. A few weeks before this year’s THON, on Jan. 30, Pope was honored with the Four Diamonds Award for volunteer service at the annual Road to THON Celebration Dinner, held at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel.

Pope, who is in his 15th year as events parking coordinator, has been volunteering at THON for that long -- and he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. All weekend long, he guards the Founders Lot outside the Bryce Jordan Center, the parking lot for Four Diamonds families whose children are or have been undergoing cancer treatment.

“Frank pours his heart into THON,” said Jean Harris, manager of the parking office and Pope’s supervisor. “He’ll leave only in the wee hours of the morning to grab a hot shower and maybe a little sleep. Every year he meets with the leadership team and shares his ideas on how they can make things run better. And every year he brings these folks to my office to introduce them to me and to chat about their parking needs leading up to THON. We do all we can to make their canning weekends, fundraising events, and THON weekend run as smoothly as possible for them. Frank is passionate about THON, and he has great ideas and vision.”

Because THON is a completely student-run event, each new year means a new student parking captain. “Every year,” said Pope, “the new parking captain walks into my office, and the first thing I say after we’ve introduced ourselves is, ‘Yes.’ They’ll say, ‘But I didn’t ask any questions yet,’ and I’ll tell them, ‘But the answer is yes. We’ll do all we can for you.’ These are great, smart kids and I learn so much from them. They care about their cause, and they bring so much energy. It’s a real blessing to work with this group.”

Over the years, Pope and other volunteers have worked to improve all aspects of the THON family parking lot. For example, up until a few years ago, the families were given parking permits, but they were “just extra permits that we had lying around,” Pope said. “And the families started asking if they could keep them. We realized they were saving these permits, along with everything else from THON, as souvenirs because it all meant so much to them. So we decided to make the permits nicer.” Now, KBF Print Technology donates the parking permits, which feature the current THON logo. This year’s permits display THON’s red and blue hot air balloon.

Pope himself also will be sporting a variation of the THON logo that will help keep him warm as he guards the family lot. His daughter, Angela Pope, knitted a special hat for him that matches the red and blue of the hot air balloon in the logo. She also made a child-size knit hat, complete with a pom-pom, for Frank Pope to give to a Four Diamonds child during THON.

For Pope, THON weekend is long and exhausting, but worth every sleepless minute -- from Thursday evening setup to the very end. “When things slow down a little in the middle of the night, I’ll go home to grab a few hours of sleep,” he said. “Then I’ll be back early in the morning. The families think I’m there the whole time because I’m there when they leave at 11 p.m. and I’m there when they come back at 7 a.m. And even though I’m tired I’ll start jumping up and down like everyone else.”

Over the years, while serving at his post at the entrance to the family parking lot, Pope has gotten to know many THON families. And he’s ridden a roller coaster of emotions as he’s heard their stories.

“It is so great to hear a family say to me, ‘We’re done with our treatments. We’ve been in remission for four years.’ Then another parent will say, ‘We had to get to THON this year. Our child might not make the next one.’ Sometimes tears of joy turn into tears of sadness, just like that.”

One of Pope’s favorite things about being in the Four Diamonds family parking lot is watching excited kids make their way to the Bryce Jordan Center. “I see these families of kids who are now out of treatment, heading toward me on their way to the building,” he said. “These groups of siblings, three or four kids in a family, are just laughing and dancing as they go along. One day it dawned on me that in these families I often can’t tell which one is the Four Diamonds child. And I thought, wow, what a miracle these college kids are doing.”

Pope is grateful to be part of that miracle each year. “It’s an honor for me to volunteer for THON and to help the families,” he said. “When a family comes into the lot, tired from their trip and not sure they’re in the right place, I love being able to say, ‘You’re at the right place. Here’s where you belong.’”

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Last Updated March 11, 2014